Don’t be surprised if droves of public health officials turn in their county gigs for less turbulent work in private practices next year. Already this year, dozens of city and county health officials across the country have resigned after receiving credible death threats. While nurses and health care workers on the frontlines of the pandemic have reached sainthood levels (and deservedly so), county health officials who rely on that same body of medical science are disparaged privately and publicly for their work trying to slow the death mill that is COVID-19.
“It is frustrating and confusing that one doctor has in her hands the fate” of every family in Tarrant county, one mother said this past July.
Speaking as part of a crowd of around a dozen wealthy parents, the mother was addressing the county head, Judge Glen Whitley, in the Tarrant County Administration Building. The “one doctor” was Dr. Catherine Colquitt, an infectious disease specialist with decades of professional experience. As the county medical director, Dr. Colquitt had used the authority granted by the governor to delay in-person public school classes due to concerns over COVID-19.
At the time, Tarrant County was reporting around 600 new cases a day. The parents weren’t happy with the decision to delay reopening classrooms. Not one to let science step in the way of a bad idea, several parents cited a June statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) to further their cause.
“Schools are fundamental to child and adolescent development and wellbeing,” the AAP statement read in part.
One month earlier, the White House had latched onto AAP’s guidance to further Donald Trump’s mandate that public schools must reopen. During a June 7 school-opening conversation held at the White House, Vice President Mike Pence said, as stated by “the American Academy of Pediatrics, so well-represented here today […] there are social costs, emotional costs, and even physical costs to our children across this country” associated with classroom closures.
In response, AAP President Sally Goza, a guest that day, addressed Pence’s comments.
“Returning to school must be done safely,” she said. “Reopening schools in a way that maximizes safety, learning, and the wellbeing of children will clearly require new investments in our schools. We urge you to ensure that schools receive the resources necessary so that funding does not stand in the way of keeping our children safe or present at school.”
To settle the matter, AAP released another statement that many saw as a rebuke of Trump’s agenda.
“Reopening schools in a way that maximizes safety, learning, and the wellbeing of children, teachers, and staff will clearly require substantial new investments in our schools and campuses,” the statement read in part. “Withholding funding from schools that do not open in person full-time would be a misguided approach, putting already financially strapped schools in an impossible position that would threaten the health of students and teachers.”
Whitley and the several dozen parents ended the late July meeting agreeing that reopening classrooms should be left to school boards. Indicted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton granted their wish soon after by stripping county officials of the authority to reopen public schools and placing that power in the hands of school boards. Fort Worth school district trustees, much to the chagrin of many in Fort Worth’s wealthy Tanglewood neighborhood (a hotbed of classroom reopening protestations), weren’t in a rush to toss teachers into classrooms with potentially COVID-infested children and coworkers. Speaking at a September 15 virtual school board meeting, Veerinder “Vinny” Taneja described how he is handling his children’s education.
“Would you send your children to school right now in person?” trustee Anne Darr asked the health director for Tarrant County Public Health.
No, he responded
“I have two children who are of school age who are doing online learning,” Taneja said. “We are not comfortable sending our children to school until there is a vaccine. We are going through the same [struggles] that other parents are.”
Tarrant County Public Health had recently published a school dashboard (TarrantCounty.com/SchoolGuidance) to help parents access a simplified assessment of the dangers faced by children (and their family members) for attending in-person learning. On the day of Taneja’s presentation, Fort Worth’s districts were registered as “red.” As of Monday, Oct. 5, Fort Worth remains red — the designation for widespread community transmission.
After weeks of vocal pleas for and against reopening classes, the school board settled on a staggered reopening plan that began last Monday.
Trustee Ashley Paz told us in an email that “the responsibility for leadership has been passed around too much. Both the state of Texas and City of Fort Worth waited too long to issue emergency orders and have reopened too early. All of our local entities have to be working together to get this thing under control. If schools are going to stay open, then conditions outside of school have to prioritize the advice of our local health experts.”
Paz has been the target of online attacks by a relatively small group of parents who live in the Tanglewood neighborhood.
“I don’t like labeling an entire neighborhood based on the actions of a few,” Paz said. “There are about 200 square miles of FWISD residents outside of Tanglewood who also have very legitimate concerns about how both [learning] options are meeting student needs. They deserve to be heard as well. At this point, students are in schools, and the district is working diligently to keep them and our teachers safe. Public officials at all levels need to be focused on how we can keep infection rates down, our schools safe, and our educational program rigorous for both virtual and in-personal learners. It’s time to move on.”
The official county stance from Taneja (who has 13 years of public health experience at the local, regional, and state levels) and a September 21 Facebook Live conversation among Mayor Betsy Price and two doctors from Cook Children’s show that what’s true for Tarrant County can mean next to nothing at the city level. While the two pediatric doctors (sitting in close proximity) opted to wear face masks, Price and Cook Children’s CEO Rick Merrill (also seated in close proximity) chose not to.
We now have restaurants open at 75% capacity, the mayor said. That creates more jobs and a greater need for childcare, and schools are a part of that childcare.
The mayor’s statements that teachers are a source of pandemic daycare may come as a surprise to educators who pursued college degrees and graduate-level studies for the profession of education — not daycare.
“I am curious to see what arguments Vinny Taneja (not a doctor) will argue tomorrow night,” one woman commented on the mayor’s post.
There are many aspects of the current pandemic that are uncontrollable, like the idiots who refuse to wear face masks in public or to wash their hands yet go out regularly. Medical science has expanded the length and quality of human life to levels that were unimaginable even a century ago, but modern medicine can’t stop nincompoops from cherry-picking science to serve selfish aims.
Public health officials like Dr. Colquitt and Taneja have dedicated their lives to serving the public by using empirical science to solve public health problems. Like many public health officials across the country, their voices are increasingly being drowned out by a wash of pseudoscience that comforts the ignorant and emboldens extremists on both sides of the political divide. Attempts to verbally attack or politically outmaneuver top medical professionals during a pandemic may be a significant reason why the United States continues to lead the world in COVID-19 deaths (211,000 to date) and why much of the world continues to ban Americans from visiting.