IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Dr. Amy Acton's handling of coronavirus crisis made her an Ohio 'icon' — and a target

Some Buckeyes are not comfortable being told by a "woman in power" to quarantine, one expert said.
Image: Amy Acton
Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton gives an update at MetroHealth Medical Center on Feb. 27, 2020, in Cleveland.Tony Dejak / AP file

Depending on who you talk to in Ohio, Dr. Amy Acton is the most loved — or the most loathed — woman in the state these days.

On one hand, Acton, the director of the state Department of Health, has drawn widespread praise for spearheading the fight against the coronavirus along with Gov. Mike DeWine.

The first woman to hold the post, Acton’s daily briefings have become must-see TV in the Buckeye State.

“Many Ohioans trust Dr. Acton because they sense that she not only understands what she's doing and how it justifies the policies being implemented, but also that she understands how difficult it is for her audience to accept the news that she is delivering and the restrictions that are being imposed on their lives,” said Christopher Devine, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Dayton.

On the other hand, Acton is now the target of angry Ohioans frustrated by the weeks of quarantine who are convinced the state overreacted to a threat that has claimed more than 1,270 lives in the state. Small but loud groups of demonstrators have picketed outside her house, drawing the ire of DeWine.

"I'm the elected official who ran for office. I'm the one who makes policy decisions. Members of my Cabinet work hard, but I set the policy," DeWine said. "You can demonstrate against me — that's fair game. To bother the family of Dr. Acton, that's not fair game. It's not right. It's not necessary. The buck stops here. I'm the responsible person."

Image: US-economy-health-virus-demonstration
A protester holds up a sign referencing Dr. Amy Acton outside of the State House in Columbus on April 18. Megan Jelinger / AFP - Getty Images

But it's not just sign-carrying protesters who are mad at Acton. Just this week, the Republican-led Legislature moved to curb Acton’s powers even though she works for a GOP governor.

DeWine was also forced to defend Acton after a local GOP legislator compared her actions to save Ohioans from the coronavirus to what the Nazis did during the Holocaust. Acton is Jewish.

“Ohio is much more Republican at the state level than most Americans would think” Devine said, and it has a conservative Legislature that was already bristling at some of the steps DeWine and Acton took to shut down the state.

Full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

“In other ways, though, the backlash against Dr. Acton is probably a general venting of frustration against the difficult circumstances we face and the awful sacrifices they require,” Devine said.

There is also another factor at play, the professor added.

“Let’s be honest,” Devine said. “The fact is many of these restrictions are being announced and enacted by a woman in power, in a state that has put very few women in major leadership roles.”

Acton did not respond to a request for comment.

Born Amy Stearns, the once obscure 54-year-old public health official grew up poor in gritty Youngstown, Ohio.

Acton in interviews has described a difficult childhood rife with hunger, homelessness and neglect that stabilized once she moved in with her father. She was a top student and managed to be named Homecoming Queen during her senior year of high school in 1984.

Acton worked her way through college and became a pediatrician before earning a master’s degree in public health at Ohio State University, where she also worked for a time as a professor.

Along the way, she married and divorced her first husband, with whom she had three children. She is now married to Eric Acton, a middle school teacher and track coach who has three children of his own. They live in the Columbus suburb of Bexley.

DeWine made Acton his final Cabinet pick despite the fact that she and the governor don’t appear to be on the same political page. She is a registered Democrat, records show.

Now Acton has a Facebook fan club, finds her face emblazoned on T-shirts and on a Bobblehead doll, and was immortalized along with DeWine in an animated cartoon inspired by the theme song from the “Laverne and Shirley” sitcom.

With her trademark white lab coat and emphatic hand gestures, she has become an icon to little girls who post videos of themselves pretending to be “Dr. Amy.”

On Tuesday, The New York Times posted an op-ed video with the headline “The Leader We Wish We All Had” that sought to explain how Acton has endeared herself to so many Ohioans.

“She wasn’t just the brains behind the state’s early, aggressive, coronavirus response; she was also its most effective messenger,” the accompanying text read.

But on the same day, Acton’s home was besieged by angry protesters demanding an end to the state’s tough stay-at-home measures and by coronavirus skeptics with a few religious bigots thrown in.

One protester carried a sign that referred to John 7:1 in the Scriptures, according to photos published by The Cleveland Jewish News.

“After this, Jesus traveled around Galilee,” the line says. “He wanted to stay out of Judea, where the Jewish leaders were plotting his death.”

Meanwhile, DeWine took state Sen. Andrew Brenner to the woodshed after he and his wife both posted comments that appeared to be anti-Semitic.

“The comments showed a complete lack of understanding of the Holocaust — made even more offensive by posting on Holocaust Memorial Day — and was a slur on a good, compassionate and honorable person who had worked nonstop to save lives and protect her fellow citizens,” DeWine said in a statement.

Brenner, who also is a Republican, insisted he was misquoted.

In addition to the personal attacks, Acton has faced attempts to curtail her ability to combat coronavirus. On Wednesday, a GOP-dominated state House of Representatives passed an amendment that would place limits on any new orders by the state health director.

Ohio, under the direction of DeWine and Acton, responded far more aggressively to the COVID-19 threat than the White House and most other states and issued shelter-in-place orders when there were only a handful of recorded deaths.

Download the NBC News app for full coverage of the coronavirus outbreak

While DeWine bucked his own party and president to protect Ohioans, Acton worked to convince residents that the best way to stay alive was to stay home. And she didn’t sugarcoat it.

“All of us are going to have to sacrifice,” she said during one televised briefing. “And I know someday we’ll be looking back and wondering what was it we did in this moment.”

Acton was not afraid to admit she didn’t know how long it would take to curb the pandemic, or afraid to admit that some days she too was overcome by anxiety.

“This is no small thing we are doing together,” she said during another briefing. “I am absolutely certain you will look back and know that you helped save each other in this state.”