COLUMBUS — Ohio has been navigating the choppy seas of the coronavirus pandemic for three months without a health director at the helm.
After last week’s hiring fiasco, it's clear filling the role won’t be easy.
Gov. Mike DeWine's administration has searched for a new Ohio Department of Health director after Dr. Amy Acton unceremoniously resigned in June. On Thursday, DeWine announced the search had concluded. Within six hours, appointee Dr. Joan Duwve withdrew her name citing “personal reasons."
In a Friday statement, Duwve said she turned down the top ODH job Thursday because she learned Acton's family faced public harassment.
During Acton's tenure as health director, gun-toting protesters picketed her suburban Columbus home. Some of the protest signage contained anti-Semitic language; Acton is Jewish. Ohio State Rep Nino Vitale, R-85, took to Facebook to call Acton a "globalist," which has long been an anti-Semitic slur.
Aside from a public rebuke to protesters to instead “come at me,” DeWine has said little publicly about the harassment directed toward his former health director. There's been little public acknowledgment from his administration about the likely reason for the Youngstown-native's resignation.
In a press conference Tuesday, DeWine did not expand on Duwve's reason for withdrawing. But the harassment faced by Dr. Acton was the subject of conversations before Duwve accepted the ODH job, he said.
"I don’t think Ohio's unique," said DeWine. "We’ve seen protests against governors we’ve seen protests against health directors throughout this country ... We are firm believers in the first amendment. You can go demonstrate. You can protest. So I don’t think we’re in any different position than any other state."
Health directors throughout the country have been targeted by opponents to shutdown measures and mask orders. Officials have been targeted based on race, gender, sexual orientation and appearance.
Pennsylvania Health Director Dr. Rachel Levine, a transgender woman, has repeatedly been the target of transphobic attacks.
In a Washington Post article, Lori Tremmel Freeman, chief executive of the National Association of County and City Health Officials, said harassment "seems to be harsher for women."
Marcus Plescia, chief medical officer with the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials, said attacks on health officials have been particularly severe in California, Colorado, Georgia, Ohio and Pennsylvania.
When asked Tuesday if the harassment leveled against health officials reflects badly on the state, DeWine shook his head and said, “No.”
“Look, we’re a state of individuals," he said. "We’re midwesterners. We’re Ohioans. We're tough. We’re strong. We’re resilient and with that goes people who have strong opinions.”
He called the job “a great opportunity to be involved in a great cause."
DeWine reassured Ohioans that the Ohio Department of Health both employs and partners with experts, despite currently lacking a leader.
The people handling the state’s response comprise “a very strong team."
"We’ve really reached out outside state government with our colleges and our universities,” said DeWine. "We pulled a lot of people together and I think that’s what the public would expect. We are in a battle. We’re in a war.”
• According to the latest figures Tuesday from the Ohio Department of Health, the state is reporting 139,485 confirmed or suspected cases of the coronavirus. There have been 2,966 confirmed or suspected cases in Mahoning County; 1,823 in Trumbull County; and 1,900 in Columbiana County.
• Statewide, there have been 4,506 confirmed or suspected COVID-19 deaths, including 279 in Mahoning County; 129 in Trumbull; and 71 in Columbiana. Mahoning County's 279 reported COVID-19 deaths on Tuesday was fifth among Ohio's 88 counties; Cuyahoga County had the most with 631.
• In nearby counties: Stark, 2,628 cases and 162 deaths; Portage, 1,015 cases and 65 deaths; and Ashtabula, 633 cases and 48 deaths.
• Franklin County Judge Richard Frye ruled county boards of elections may install multiple secure dropboxes to accept vote-by-mail ballots. The Ohio Democratic Party had filed a lawsuit arguing that multiple dropboxes are permissible under state law, though Secretary of State Frank LaRose last month banned counties from having more than one, which would be at county elections offices.
• According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health on Tuesday, there are 146,214 COVID-19 cases in the state which have led to 7,875 deaths. The state said the recovery rate is 82 percent. There have been 659 confirmed or suspected cases in Mercer County and 13 deaths; 487 cases in Lawrence County and 21 deaths.
• The federal district court has delayed trial for the New Middletown man accused of threatening gun violence at the Jewish Community Center of Youngstown. James Reardon, 21, faces federal charges of transmitting a threatening communication and possession of a firearm in furtherance of a crime of violence.
• The Rotary Club of Youngstown has donated $10,000 for the Robinson-Shuba Commemorative Statue. The bronze statue to be unveiled in 2021 will portray the 1946 handshake at home plate between Jackie Robinson, the first Black player allowed to compete in mainstream professional baseball, and his white teammate from Youngstown, George Shuba.
• The Youngstown Playhouse, 600 Playhouse Lane, has announced its 2021 season and virtual fall theater classes. The 2021 season will include “The Color Purple,” “Marjorie Prime,” “The Producers,” “The Gone Away Place” and “Elf: The Musical.”
• When Stambaugh Auditorium presents the 1925 silent film "The Phantom of the Opera" with organ accompaniment Oct. 25, the event will have a new look. A smaller-than-usual audience will watch it live because of pandemic requirements, but the show will also be live-streamed for other viewers.