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Health official in Kansas target of anger, harassment over proposed Covid measures

Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney, the Wilson County health officer, said community members have driven by her home, videotaped her and posted insulting messages about her on Facebook.
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FREDONIA, Kan. — In this rural town of 2,500 people, residents are used to pitching in and coming together in a crisis. This pandemic is different.

Throughout the state, politics and anger are infecting the public health discourse as health officials find that they're fighting not only Covid-19 but also threats and harassment from "anti-maskers" and others who refuse to follow safety guidelines.

Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney, the Wilson County health officer, a school board member and the wife of Fredonia Mayor Bob McKenney, was eager to lead her community's Covid-19 response. But nine months after the first Covid-19 case was confirmed in Kansas, she finishes many workdays in tears.

"There have been times that after everybody leaves the clinic ... I just shut the door and I cry for a little bit," she said this week. "Because it's so hard. I don't want to be that person in front of my children."

Dozens of health officials in Kansas have left or lost their jobs after having weathered insults and harassment from people who refuse to follow mask mandates and safety guidelines, according to KCUR, a National Public Radio station in Kansas City, Missouri. On top of that, health officials have had to contend with other challenges: disinformation, distrust of government, fear of being asked to quarantine and missed shifts at work.

Image: Jennifer McKenney with her family
Dr. Jennifer Bacani McKenney with her husband Bob McKenney, the mayor of Fredonia, and their children.Courtesy Jennifer McKenney

McKenney said community members have driven by her home and videotaped her, posted insulting messages about her on Facebook and pushed for her to lose her job.

"I think there's a lot of fear. And there's so much unknown," she said. "People want to blame something, and they can't blame a virus that is too small to be seen. So they blame people like me."

Resistance to public health measures has not been confined to social media or fringe members of the community. In late November, local leaders held a public hearing over a proposed 30-day mask mandate. Several residents stepped forward, comparing the proposal to abortion, the Holocaust and the loss of freedom of speech.

Leaders such as County Commission member Andrew Miller have been openly critical of masks and McKenney's suggestions. Miller did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.

McKenney, who was born and raised in Fredonia, is the daughter of Filipino immigrants, and she sometimes wonders whether race has played a role in her treatment. She added that many residents remain supportive.

"The person that is telling people to wear masks and social distance looks a little bit like the people they think manufactured this virus or caused the virus in the first place," she said. "We have people in the community calling it, still, the 'China virus.' They talk about how, you know, this was all a big hoax or a big ploy from the Chinese government."

Destany Wheeler, administrator and contact tracer for the county Health Department, who has been working in public health since the swine flu pandemic of 2009, said the coronavirus pandemic has been the most difficult period of her career. Wheeler said she has been verbally abused by residents who do not want to quarantine or cooperate with her attempts to trace contacts.

She said she is "fully aware that some people are not going to like me anymore" and hopes that many of her friendships return to normal when the pandemic eventually ends.

In the meantime, staffers at Fredonia's regional hospital are trying to keep their heads above water. As hospitals and health care workers across the country prepare for a vaccine, the small hospital team does not yet know where its community will get or store vaccines, McKenney said.

The staff's immediate concern is the rise in Covid-19 cases. In the first seven months of the pandemic, the community recorded 60 confirmed cases. Since Nov. 25, it has had 80.

Yet, as the county's mask mandate is set to expire at the end of December, McKenney said she has no plans to quit.

"I do what I do because it's the right thing to do," she said. "I believe in our community, and I care about the people here. And the people in this community are worth all the fight."