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UPDATE | DeWine mum as Duwve says she withdrew after learning Acton's family harassed

"I withdrew my name from consideration to protect my family from similar treatment," Dr. Joan Duwve said in a statement to a South Carolina newspaper.
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Incoming Ohio Department of Health Director Dr. Joan Duwve (left) and Gov. Mike DeWine (right)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Dr. Joan Duwve said she turned down the top Ohio Department of Health job Thursday because she learned former ODH director Dr. Amy Acton's family faced public harassment.

"In conversations preparing for the transition to the Ohio Department of Health, I was informed that the former director's family had faced harassment from the public," Duwve said in a Friday statement to Columbia newspaper The State. "While I have dedicated my life to improving public health, my first commitment is to my family. I am a public figure. My family is off limits. I withdrew my name from consideration to protect my family from similar treatment.

"I very much appreciate Gov. [Mike] DeWine's confidence in me."

DeWine during his 2 p.m. Thursday briefing on the state's coronavirus response announced he had chosen Duwve — an Ohio native currently serving as South Carolina's public health director — to be the permanent replacement for Acton, who resigned in mid-June.

But a mere six hours later, the governor's office announced Duwve had removed her name from consideration, citing "personal reasons."

Dan Tierney, the governor's spokesperson, didn't offer additional comment on Duwve's Friday statement to The State, saying her comments "speak for themselves."

When asked whether the administration discussed with Duwve the public backlash Acton faced as the figurehead of controversial state health directives, Tierney said, "All aspects of the job and the process moving forward after the selection were discussed with Dr. Duwve."

In early May, protestors camped out at Acton's home in Columbus' Bexley neighborhood. Some of the protest signage contained anti-Semitic language; Acton is Jewish.

The following Monday, DeWine told Ohioans Acton, as an appointed member of his cabinet, is also off limits.

"Come after me," he said. "I set the policy. So when you don't like the policy, again, you can demonstrate against me. But to bother the family of Dr. Acton, that is not fair game. I don't think it's right. I don't think it's necessary to get your point across."

Tierney also declined to comment on whether the May protests and personal harassment factored into Acton's decision to resign.

Acton at the time didn't specify why she decided to step down, but noted her workload had tripled during the pandemic.

"It's something I've known wasn't a sustainable thing," she said.

Acton at the time said she had been reflecting on her position, helping coordinate the state's pandemic response and the usual work of the state health department.

"I'm a person who really has a very strong sense of wanting to do my very best and didn't want to let any of these things be shortchanged," she said.

Following her resignation, Acton briefly continued on as the governor's chief health adviser before leaving the state's employ entirely.

South Carolina health officials on Thursday told The State Duwve chose to take the ODH job to be closer to her family.

“I am thrilled to return to Ohio, where I grew up,” Duwve said in a Thursday press release, prior to her change of heart. “Through forging strong partnerships across the state, I firmly believe that together, we can build healthier communities that in turn create greater opportunities for all Ohioans to thrive.”

She was expected to start work about Oct. 1, DeWine said Thursday.

Tierney said late Thursday Lance Himes, who has served as ODH interim director since Acton's resignation, will continue in that role. The administration's search for a permanent health director resumes.

"Gov. DeWine is confident we will find the right person to keep the Ohio Department of Health moving forward in this critical time," Tierney said.

He could not say whether DeWine would address Duwve's unexpected withdrawal during the next state coronavirus briefing on Tuesday.