• Editor's picks
  • Public Health Workers In Kansas Walk Away Over Pressure From Pandemic Politics

Public Health Workers In Kansas Walk Away Over Pressure From Pandemic Politics


   In July, Nick Baldetti resigned as director of the Reno County Health Department in Kansas.

But it wasn't the 80-hour workweeks that drove him to quit, it was the hostile political environment and threats to Baldetti's family.

   "I had the local police watching my house because my family was home and I was not," said Baldetti, who also served as the department's health officer. "There was a period of time that I had escorts to and from work."

   Baldetti spent years preparing to deal with a public health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. He never imagined that when the moment arrived, he would encounter such antagonism for simply doing his job.

   "By the end of the day, you just felt like you were on an island by yourself," he said. "Whatever decision I made, 50% of people were going to be upset because it was too 'restrictive' and the other 50% were going to be upset because it wasn't restrictive enough.  

   But support for those policies eroded as the number of unemployed Kansans grew to levels not seen since the Great Recession. Republican legislative leaders responded by reining in Kelly's emergency powers and those of local health officials.

   As the political debate grew more heated — nationally and in Kansas — hostility toward public health officials, like McKenney, increased.

   She got threatening emails and was the target of personal attacks on social media.

   "It hurts your heart, it really does," McKenney said. "It's not only that people are mean, it's that you've lost friends. Relationships are broken."

   During the worst of it, McKenney said, she often sat alone in her office and cried after seeing her last patient of the day.

   "There's nothing else to do," she said.

   Andy Miller, a Wilson County commissioner, said McKenney brought some of the criticism on herself by disparaging President Trump's handling of the pandemic in social media posts.

   "When you start getting political," Miller said, "you've created a storm."

   When that happens, he said, the attacks run both ways.

   "I've probably got a dozen emails or so that are just, 'it's either a mask [mandate] or you're a killer,' " he said. "There's no in between."

   Early last month, commissioners rejected McKenney's proposal for a mask mandate. But as COVID-19 cases in the county and across the state surged and Kelly reiterated her call for a statewide policy, they agreed to consider a compromise.

   Most of the people who showed up for a public hearing opposed the mandate as an assault on their personal liberty.

   "My fear doesn't happen to be the COVID virus but the overreach of national and state officials who believe because of their positions or ego that their opinions are fact," said Charles Fox, a Fredonia veterinarian.

   Donovan Hutchinson, the bar owner in nearby Neodesha, said giving in to a mask mandate would lead to further abuses of government power.

   "What will they come after next, our guns, our children?" he said.

   When it became apparent that the commission was ready to approve a 30-day mask mandate as a compromise several people walked out in protest.

   Like other public health officials, McKenney is tired and discouraged. But she said she's not going to quit.

   "That's not me," she said. "I can't have this knowledge and ability to help people and just walk away."


James McLean -- National Public Radio

When are these lies going to stop one minute they say wear a mask next minute don't wear a mask it doesn't work which it does not only for hospitals it even says on the box of the Mask this mask does not stop the spread of covid-19 so which is the truth probably don't wear a mask because the governor's and mayors of this country don't our president don't cuz they know this is a hoax and masks are very very harmful to your health unless you're a doctor or a nurse in surgery that's what they were made for. Not for submission

Print Email