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Ohio health director Amy Acton, praised by some for coronavirus response, stepping down

Acton, praised by some for public health actions to fight the coronavirus, will still be involved in the COVID-19 response.
Dr. Amy Acton, Ohio Department of Health Director, discusses the confirmation of Ohio's first three cases of coronavirus, as Gov. Mike DeWine, right, studies an update on the cases provided to him, during a news conference on March 9, 2020, in Columbus. Lt. Gov. Jon Husted is at left.Andrew Welsh-Huggins / AP file

Ohio's health director Dr. Amy Acton, praised by some for the state’s early efforts to combat the coronavirus epidemic and criticized by others for public health rules, is stepping down from her role.

The announcement came Thursday.

Acton will serve as Gov. Mike DeWine's chief health advisor and "continue to focus on the COVID-19 crisis," the governor said in a statement that also thanked her for her service.

Acton was targeted in an unsuccessful effort by Ohio's Republican-majority House of Representatives to curb her powers. The Senate rejected it. Protesters also gathered outside her home demanding an end to the state’s stay-at-home measures.

DeWine said Thursday that Acton told him this week that "it is time for her to step down as director of health."

Acton said that her role as health director was not one she ever envisioned but called it "an honor of a lifetime." She said she was a representative of the many people who worked tirelessly to combat the epidemic and thanked the residents of Ohio for progress in battling the disease. "Ohioans, you have saved lives. You've done this," she said.

Ohio instituted stay-at-home measures that included shutting down some businesses as a way to slow the spread of the coronavirus, steps that were followed by other states.

Acton was asked about the criticism over the orders and the public pressure, and she said that it was a new experience for her, having never run for an elected office.

"But I have to say, for anyone doing this job, you'd be surprised how much — a lot of that isn't your focus," Acton said. "... It had to be a single-point meditation on the task at hand, and it remains that."

Lance Himes, the former director of the health department and who served Acton as deputy, was named interim director of the state health department.

DeWine heaped praise on Acton Thursday.

"It's true not all heroes wear capes — some of them do, in fact, wear a white coat," DeWine, a Republican, said at a Thursday press conference. "And this particular hero's white coat is embossed with the name Dr. Amy Acton."

DeWine announced in February 2019 that Acton had accepted the position as the director of Ohio's health department, and in the first year, they focused on issues like lead-paint poisoning, infant mortality, suicide prevention and other issues, the governor said.

Then the novel coronavirus that causes the disease COVID-19 was detected in Wuhan, China. DeWine said that Acton began talking with him about the issue soon after it was reported in the media.

"While the decisions were always mine, her counsel has been superb," the governor said. "And I will always believe and know that many, many lives have been saved because the advice that I received from her and the great work that she did."

Ohio has had more than 40,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with 2,490 deaths, according to the Ohio Department of Health website.

Across the United States, there have been more than 2 million cases and over 110,000 deaths linked to the disease across the U.S. as of Thursday evening, according to NBC News' count.

Ohio ranks below more than a dozen other states, including states with a similar population like Georgia, and those with fewer people like Louisiana and Michigan, in the number of identified cases, according to those counts.

Like other states, Ohio has eased its public health restrictions surrounding the coronavirus and has reopened its economy. Bars and restaurants have been allowed to reopen, and last week the governor announced that casinos and places like amusement parks would be permitted to reopen next week.