COLUMBUS, Ohio – Gov. Mike DeWine said he believes Ohio will not have too much trouble finding a new Ohio Department of Health director, after a South Carolina physician and state government official declined the job just five hours after he publicly announced her appointment last week.
“I don’t think Ohio is unique,” DeWine said during his Tuesday coronavirus update. “We’ve seen protests against governors. We’ve seen protests against health directors throughout this country. We know these are issues that can be divisive.”
Dr. Joan Duwve on Thursday backed out of the job to lead the state’s health department, telling a South Carolina newspaper that the harassment former Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Amy Acton faced – which included demonstrators showing up at her home, including at least one who carried an anti-Semitic sign, and an anti-abortion organization publishing an interview with her estranged mother – made her reconsider.
DeWine said Duwve told him she couldn’t take the job for personal reasons, which he said he takes at face value.
He said he, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and other members of the administration talked to Duwve about the job, and in those talks the demonstrations against Acton came up.
“I don’t think we’re in any different position than any other state that would be hiring a health director,” DeWine said.
He’s not aware of any other candidate for the position who has expressed concern about the harassment that was directed at Acton, who critics blamed for the coronavirus public health orders that shut down the economy in the spring.
DeWine said he’s also looking for a medical director for the Ohio Department of Health, after longtime state employee Dr. Mark Hurst retired.
Last week, Duvwe’s resume surfaced online, and anti-abortion activists seized on her work for eight months as a volunteer coordinator for Planned Parenthood in 1984, questioning whether she would enforce the state’s abortion laws, which are some of the nation’s strictest. The health department director has the authority to shut down abortion clinics.
An abortion rights activist, on the other hand, blamed extremists in the anti-abortion movement for politicizing public health to such an extent that people were emboldened to show up at a health director’s home with signs. She said that Ohio’s current abortion laws will make it tough for good candidates to want to apply.
Ohio is one of a number of states that have seen health directors step down amid harassment, said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“It’s obviously made it harder to recruit people,” said Sharfstein, who previously served as Maryland’s state health director. That’s “really unfortunate,” he said, as states right now are having to deal not only with the coronavirus, but other public health crises such as drug overdoses and racism.
Sharfstein said there’s a pool of only several hundred people nationwide who have the experience to become a state health director — and only several dozen in any given state.
State health directors often make less money than they could elsewhere, and they usually work behind the scenes instead of the spotlight, Sharfstein said. As a result, people who choose to take such a job usually do so because of “a profound sense of satisfaction” that they are making life better for people.
“I think, in general, the kind of person who wants to be a health officer is not very excited about the idea of having protests on their front lawn or being called all kinds of names,” Sharfstein said.
However, Sharfstein said, Ohio is seen as a more desirable place to be a state health director than some other states, as DeWine consistently defended Acton.
In fact, Sharfstein said he’s already been circulating the job posting for Ohio’s health director around to potential candidates after he was asked to do so by a member of the state’s search committee.
“There’s some states I might not send it around at all,” Sharfstein said. “But Ohio I did because of the fact that the governor was supporting the health officer.”
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