‘We’re Coming for You’: For Public Well being Officers, a 12 months of Threats and Menace

[Editor’s note: This article contains strong language that readers might find offensive or disturbing.]

SANTA CRUZ COUNTY, Calif. — Dr. Gail Newel appears to be like again on the previous yr and struggles to articulate precisely when the general public bellows of frustration round her covid-related well being orders morphed into one thing darker and extra menacing.

Definitely, there was that Sunday afternoon in Could, when protesters broke by means of the gates to her non-public hillside neighborhood, took up positions round her house, and sang “Gail to Jail,” a ritual they might repeat each Sunday for weeks.

Or the county Board of Supervisors assembly not lengthy after, the place a visibly agitated man ready for his flip on the microphone out of the blue lunged at her over a small partition, staring her down whilst sheriff’s deputies flanked him and authorities cleared the room.

The letters, emails and cellphone calls that now quantity within the a whole bunch and inevitably open with “Bitch,” and clarify folks know the place she lives and need her useless.

And that January assembly with Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart, after the vicious mob assault on the U.S. Capitol, when he really helpful to a roomful of county officers that deputies do a risk evaluation at every of their properties. Newel, who’d already been by means of the method, casually talked about a New 12 months’s decision to get extra train and begin strolling to work. Completely not, Hart advised her. She wasn’t strolling anyplace with out an escort.

Newel, 63, is the well being officer in Santa Cruz County, a picturesque string of communities hugging California’s rugged Central Coast. In regular years, hers could be a largely invisible job that entails monitoring measles outbreaks and STD infections, testing kids for lead publicity, and alerting the general public to tainted lettuce and unhealthy air. Covid has modified all that, in methods each anticipated and never. Newel, like well being officers throughout the nation, has been thrust into an unwelcome highlight and subjected to excessive scrutiny from politicians and the general public over masks necessities, enterprise closures and the prolonged interruption of journey and social gatherings.

Among the dissent was comprehensible: the shocked response of residents requested to make unprecedented sacrifices throughout a time of nice uncertainty. However in Santa Cruz and lots of different U.S. communities, reputable debate has devolved into overt intimidation and threats of violence.

Public servants like Newel have develop into the face of presidency authority within the pandemic. And, in flip, they’ve develop into targets for a similar loose-knit militia and white nationalist teams that stormed the U.S. Capitol in January, smashing home windows, bloodying officers and savagely chanting “Grasp Mike Pence.”

Over the course of a yr, Newel and her boss, Santa Cruz County’s well being companies director, Mimi Corridor, have seen their lives upended for causes properly past the exhausting workload that comes with battling a devastating pandemic. Their each day routines now incorporate safety patrols, surveillance cameras and, in some instances, private firearms.

They’re public servants who not really feel secure in public.

“Once I do have days off, I don’t need to be out in the neighborhood. I’m intimidated to be out in the neighborhood,” Newel mentioned. “I’m seeking to see who is likely to be near me or to my automobile, who is likely to be following me — seeking to see if there’s any sort of scenario that I may not be capable of get out of or that is likely to be harmful to me ultimately.”

Santa Cruz County Well being Officer Dr. Gail Newel has pressed on along with her work whilst reputable debate over pandemic-related well being orders devolved into threats of violence. (Anna Maria Barry-Jester / KHN)


Newel was born and raised within the metropolis of Fresno in California’s Central Valley, a area identified for industrial-scale farming and conservative politics. After finishing levels in drugs and public well being, Newel returned house to work as an obstetrician. There, along with delivering a whole bunch of infants, she helped develop a lactation heart, a program for pregnant girls with substance abuse points and a teen being pregnant program. After 30 years of “catching infants,” she’d deliberate to retire as a physician’s spouse in Santa Cruz, the place her spouse, additionally a doctor, had taken a job.

The couple name themselves Central Valley refugees; they typically felt unwelcome in Fresno County as a same-sex couple. With their grownup kids already out of the home, they purchased a house in Santa Cruz and made plans to spend the remainder of their lives there. Newel felt referred to as to serve when the well being officer in a neighboring county urged her to contemplate a second profession in public well being. She grew to become Santa Cruz County’s well being officer on July 1, 2019.

Newel developed a simple affinity with director Corridor, who has the broader accountability of managing all countywide medical, behavioral and environmental well being applications. Corridor, 53, was born in Myanmar, the place her mother and father labored as medical doctors in a small hospital with out working water or electrical energy. The household relocated to the U.S. when she was a younger youngster. Corridor has spent her total grownup life working in public well being, the previous 22 years in California county authorities. She labored within the coronary heart of the Sierra Nevada earlier than shifting north to Plumas, a county larger than Delaware however so sparsely populated that its county seat isn’t designated a metropolis.

There, she mentioned, she fought with elected officers who didn’t imagine in her work. She mentioned her kids, among the many few Asian People in Plumas, skilled racism and bullying. When Corridor was employed by Santa Cruz County in 2018, she moved her husband and three children to a seemingly bucolic house within the redwood forests of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Corridor has devoted her grownup life to public well being work. She has skilled controversy in her earlier jobs, however nothing just like the vitriol and harassment that has include the pandemic. “There have been days I simply felt like, I can’t do that. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t stand up tomorrow morning,” Corridor says. (Anna Maria Barry-Jester / KHN)

As well being officer, Newel is a part of a fraternity of better Bay Space well being officers who, because the early AIDS period, have met commonly to work on public well being points. Lots of her native counterparts have deep information of infectious ailments and, within the early days of the pandemic, she leaned on them closely. In California, like many different states, each county is required to have a well being officer. That particular person should have coaching in drugs, and, in emergencies, is granted broad authority to maintain the general public secure.

When Newel’s Bay Space counterparts issued the primary sweeping stay-at-home orders within the nation on March 16, 2020, she was simply hours behind in issuing one for Santa Cruz. It ordered most companies to shut and banned most journey and social gatherings. Just a few weeks later, in an effort to maintain vacationers away, she ordered the seashores closed as properly.

It was a grueling time — each Newel and Corridor went months and not using a actual break day — however adrenaline-filled. They arrange testing websites, organized data-tracking operations, coordinated with dozens of state and native teams on covid response and oversaw contact tracing for a whole bunch of instances.

And, as life-threatening pandemics go, they had been off to a superb begin. Analysis means that lockdowns are handiest when initiated early, and that analysis is mirrored within the Santa Cruz expertise. By June 2020, solely a handful of individuals had been recognized in Santa Cruz every week, and simply two folks had died from the virus in a county of 280,000, a fraction of the nationwide dying charge.


Santa Cruz County may appear an unlikely venue for menace. It’s identified for its laid-back vibe and hippie communes. Nevertheless it’s additionally a research in divergence: Multimillion-dollar estates are tucked into the Santa Cruz Mountains alongside the barricaded compounds of well-armed survivalists. Farmworkers are likely to world-class strawberry fields within the southern a part of the county alongside unique trip leases.

Within the early months of the pandemic, the covid diagnoses principally got here from south county, amongst agricultural employees nonetheless tending crops and dwelling in crowded housing. The complaints, nevertheless, had been principally from folks within the rich seaside communities, and out-of-towners deeply resentful of the extremely publicized restrictions.

The pushback began with indignant emails and voicemails, individuals who contested the seaside closures, the intrusion on private freedoms. However over time, it ventured additional, into language that was private and terrorizing. Newel remembers threatening letters that said her tackle and the names of her kids. Others included pictures of the back and front of her house from shut vary, and messages like “Look out; we’re coming for you.” The county clerk helped scrub her tackle from the web.

Dr. Gail Newel’s choice to shut the seashores in Santa Cruz County to stem covid’s unfold was met with acrimony and defiance in corners of the group. She finally lifted the order, saying it was proving too dangerous and troublesome to implement. (Anna Maria Barry-Jester / KHN)

Corridor remembers obscene late-night cellphone calls, and a person who gave the impression to be casing her house. She took her cell quantity off her e mail signature.

Then got here the Sunday protesters, who would encompass Newel’s house with bullhorns and sirens blaring, their hostile rants making her — and, worse, her household — really feel like hostages. “I’m prepared to be a public servant, however I don’t assume that features having folks trespass onto my non-public property,” she mentioned. “I used to be fairly anxious for my household and for myself and our security.”

Most native well being officers within the U.S. are girls and, because the pandemic wore on, the threats took on a clearly misogynistic tone. Folks used phrases like “bitch” and “cunt,” and made disturbing veers into sexually express references.

At a county Board of Supervisors assembly in late Could, a younger man, his voice thick with rage, accused Newel of ruining his life by closing the seashores. “You need me to remain inside, get fats, watch Netflix and masturbate?” The listening to was full of folks lobbying for a variance from state closure guidelines. As in earlier conferences, folks filmed Newel at shut vary. Throughout the public remark interval, they streamed to the microphone. Many eliminated their masks. Folks had been visibly agitated, tapping toes, muttering swear phrases.

Then, a person began towards the mic, however made a beeline for Newel as an alternative. Sheriff’s deputies surrounded him and whisked Newel and Corridor out of the room, whereas a county govt evacuated the assembly. Feeling he might not guarantee her security, Sheriff Hart requested Newel to cease attending conferences in particular person.

Within the days and weeks that adopted, Corridor, too, adopted new routines. She would depart work at 7 p.m., when the safety guards ended their shift. On her approach out of her workplace, she referred to as her husband, staying on the cellphone with him till she was locked in her automobile. As soon as house, she checked the cost on the safety cameras that present a full-perimeter view of her house and greeted her canine, who works double time as member of the family and safety element.

Nonetheless, she didn’t know what to make of all of it. “You’re undecided — is it actually harmful? You are feeling this sense of, properly, possibly we’re overreacting, you understand?” Corridor mentioned.

The general public pushback towards Newel’s well being orders began with indignant calls and emails, individuals who contested the seaside closures. Over time, it ventured into language that was private and terrorizing: threatening letters that said her tackle and the names of her kids, and others with messages like “Look out; we’re coming for you.” (Anna Maria Barry-Jester / KHN)


Lots of the folks expressing probably the most vicious anger over the previous yr have histories of anti-government sentiment. There are the white supremacists, and teams with adopted militia names. The “sovereign residents,” who view themselves as ruled solely by their very own interpretations of frequent legislation. The individuals who oppose any authorities mandates to be vaccinated.

Nonetheless, issues accelerated through the collision of Donald Trump’s presidency with the pandemic.

Membership in right-wing, white supremacist, anti-government and anti-vaccine teams was on the rise earlier than 2020, beneath a Trump presidency seen as sympathetic to such ideologies and facilitated by means of social media to attract in new adherents.

Then got here the pandemic, which stranded folks of their properties and remodeled screens into their main social gateways. Throughout chatrooms and web sites, of us converged on-line to share grievances about perceived threats to private freedoms. They discovered frequent trigger in rebelling towards closures and masks mandates and rallying round Trump. Teams that had beforehand protested vaccine necessities adopted militia language and imagery. Militias started organizing towards well being orders, and their techniques had been adopted by but extra newly organized teams that fashioned on-line.

On April 17, Trump used his favored platform, Twitter, to ship a collection of calls to “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!” Then to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your nice 2nd Modification. It’s beneath siege!”

It set off a cascade of repercussions for well being officers. Hundreds of Fb pages sprung as much as manage towards stay-at-home orders.

“They simply erupted in rage on the lockdowns. [Trump] instantly undercut the credibility of public well being officers,” mentioned Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the International Venture In opposition to Hate and Extremism and an professional on militia and white nationalist organizations. “He turned the general public well being sector into liars and enemies of his supporters.”

Public well being is inherently not an individualistic endeavor. It’s the science of enhancing the well being of populations, and as a rule, these enhancements are of a collective nature. To deliver down charges of smoking, we’ve taxed cigarettes and restricted the place folks can smoke. Workplaces had been made safer by means of laws limiting publicity to poisonous supplies and dangerous equipment. Infectious ailments are slowed to a crawl by means of vaccination necessities.

I by no means thought in my profession that I’d see professionals, medical doctors being threatened for doing their job.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart

It’s not shocking that well being officers would develop into the recipients of the backlash related to anti-government ideologies, mentioned Jason Blazakis, director of the Middle on Terrorism, Extremism and Counterterrorism on the Middlebury Institute of Worldwide Research in Monterey. However the nation hasn’t reckoned with how covid disinformation is animating these threats.

By the tip of Could, well being leaders throughout the nation had been quitting in droves. In California alone, eight public well being officers had left high posts, together with Orange County’s public well being officer, Dr. Nichole Fast, who’d been given a safety element earlier than she resigned. These had been folks with in depth coaching in public well being, but in addition folks with deep relationships in the neighborhood, the sort of experience you’ll be able to’t achieve in class.

Simply up the coast from Santa Cruz, the well being officer for Santa Clara County, Dr. Sara Cody, was receiving so many credible threats by spring 2020 that she and her household got 24-hour safety particulars. A collection of threatening letters had been notably disturbing. They had been suspected of coming from the identical nameless creator due to sentence construction, but in addition their “misogynistic content material … and clear anti-government place,” a sheriff’s report mentioned. One mentioned: “You’re fucking so many for no cause … you’ll pay a heavy value in your stupidity bitch.” One other learn: “You will need to go regardless of the way you go … you silly fucking bitch.”

Santa Clara’s sheriff’s workplace started investigating.

“Be Variety” reads the button on director Corridor’s employees badge, a reminder of a civility typically misplaced in discourse surrounding the pandemic. “I by no means thought in my profession that I’d see professionals, medical doctors being threatened for doing their job,” says Santa Cruz County Sheriff Jim Hart.(Anna Maria Barry-Jester / KHN)


Sheriff Hart grew up in Santa Cruz and has been with the division for 33 years. It’s a country place with out a whole lot of severe crime. Hart was conscious of some members of white supremacist teams within the mountains, however largely thought-about them benign carryovers from a earlier period. “I’d at all times take threats, particularly to myself and to a few of our employees, with a grain of salt,” Hart mentioned. “We’re in legislation enforcement; some folks don’t like us. I get that.”

June 6, 2020, modified his considering.

Seven months to the day earlier than the siege on the U.S. Capitol, on a heat Saturday afternoon, a 911 name got here into the sheriff’s workplace. A suspicious-looking van was parked on the aspect of a street within the mountain city of Boulder Creek, the caller mentioned, and it matched the outline of a van utilized in a drive-by capturing every week earlier in Oakland, when a federal safety officer was killed throughout a Black Lives Matter protest.

Utilizing the car identification quantity to find out the proprietor of the van, Santa Cruz sheriff’s deputies made their solution to his house, which was simply up the street from Corridor’s. There, a violent ambush unfolded.

In line with legislation enforcement stories, Steven Carrillo, an active-duty Air Power sergeant, shot at officers with a do-it-yourself AR-15-style rifle and threw at the least one explosive. He fled, hitting an officer with a automobile. Driving the backroads, he carjacked at the least one particular person. The brutal episode got here to an finish when Carrillo was tackled by a younger man whereas making an attempt to steal one other car.

Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller, 38, was fatally shot within the ambush, the primary member of Santa Cruz County legislation enforcement to die on the job since 1983.

On June 6, 2020, Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller was fatally shot on this Santa Cruz mountain street throughout an ambush authorities say was carried out by an adherent of the anti-government group Boogaloo Bois. “I began questioning, Who round me thinks this fashion?” says well being director Mimi Corridor. “And the way shut are they?”(Anna Maria Barry-Jester / KHN)

Authorities have since tied Carrillo to an energetic state faction of the Boogaloo Bois, a secretive and decentralized anti-government motion. In contrast to most of the teams pushing again towards public well being measures over the previous yr, they’re expressly anti-cop. One among their said objectives has been to infiltrate Black Lives Matter protests and trigger violence that might be blamed on the left, to incite a civil warfare. Carrillo has since pleaded not responsible to a number of costs of homicide within the Santa Cruz and Oakland assaults.

Corridor instantly took down the indicators from her fence celebrating her daughter’s commencement and declaring Black Lives Matter — something that recognized them — and put in extra safety cameras. “I began questioning, Who round me thinks this fashion? And the way shut are they?” Corridor mentioned.

Newel had the same response: “Till that point, the threats appeared like nothing however threats. Like, oh, folks would possibly say these horrible issues to me, however they’re not going to behave on them. After which that one motion utterly modified how I considered my group.”

Hart was devastated. He had identified Gutzwiller because the deputy was a youngster. Earlier than that day, Hart mentioned, he realized that right-wing ideology existed however didn’t perceive the extent of cold-blooded dedication. He began rethinking the threats to Corridor and Newel. “I by no means thought in my profession that I’d see professionals, medical doctors being threatened for doing their job. It’s been mind-boggling to me,” mentioned Hart.

A month later, Corridor obtained a chilling letter containing references to the Boogaloo motion. It started with “Hey, CUNT,” threatened her household and wished her a sluggish dying. Related letters had been despatched to Sgt. Gutzwiller’s widow and the sheriff’s division.

Hart’s division put out a bulletin to different legislation enforcement, together with particulars of the letters and details about the person they suspected may need despatched them. In neighboring Santa Clara, the sheriff’s division observed similarities to the string of letters their very own well being officer had been receiving since April.

When the suspect left work noon to mail one more nameless letter to Cody, a Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputy was tailing him, in accordance with courtroom information. The suspect, Alan Viarengo, was arrested and charged with felony stalking and harassment of a public determine associated to the letters to Cody; he has pleaded not responsible. Detectives searched his Gilroy house and located greater than 130 firearms, hundreds of rounds of ammunition and supplies to construct explosives, in accordance with legislation enforcement stories.

Because the felony case moved ahead, Hart steered that, along with safety programs, the ladies purchase firearms. Corridor’s husband got here house with a shotgun. For Newel, who holds pacifist beliefs, it wasn’t an possibility. “I wouldn’t ever have a gun in my house,” she mentioned.

That very same month, adherents of a sovereign residents motion the FBI characterizes as extremist and a type of home terrorism went to Newel’s house and served her “papers” claiming she’d damaged the legislation. The identical group, irate that Santa Cruz Police Chief Andrew Mills had supported Newel’s closure orders and masks mandates, left papers inside his house, on his bed room pillow, in accordance with legislation enforcement.

“I’m intimidated to be out in the neighborhood,” Newel says. “I’m seeking to see who is likely to be near me or to my automobile, who is likely to be following me.”(Anna Maria Barry-Jester / KHN)

All through these episodes, Newel and Corridor had been nonetheless responding to the pandemic. Whilst fires raged by means of the mountains, forcing them to evacuate their properties. Whilst they had been positioned on furlough to make up for finances shortfalls.

Once you ask Newel and Corridor in regards to the results of dwelling amid a lot bile and unease, each say they aren’t dominated by concern. However in addition they describe sleepless nights when their spouses are out of city, and each have withdrawn from the group. Corridor stopped becoming a member of her kids’s college occasions on Zoom, afraid different mother and father would acknowledge her, and goes to the grocery retailer incognito, beneath a hat and messy ponytail. Newel simply doesn’t exit a lot in any respect.

Since final April, 22 high well being officers have left their posts in California. In December, simply as vaccines had been arriving, Corridor severely thought-about resigning. She’d gained 30 kilos and began taking blood strain treatment. She was bringing her laptop computer into mattress each evening and never spending sufficient time with household. Her kids wished her to stop. “There have been days I simply felt like, I can’t do that. I can’t do it anymore. I can’t stand up tomorrow morning. I used to be mentally, bodily, emotionally exhausted.”

She has stayed, not as a result of she thinks issues will essentially get higher, however as a result of quitting wouldn’t make her life simpler. It’d simply train those who in the event that they’re loud sufficient and imply sufficient they will get what they need. If she had realized something from her refugee mother and father, it was that she might go on, and so she should. “It’s not the concept every part will end up high quality. It’s that it doesn’t matter what, you’ll be able to survive this,” she mentioned.

As for Newel, she mentioned she’ll stick the job out as a result of she’s cussed that approach. However she and her spouse have rethought their retirement plans. “If we don’t really feel comfy being out in the neighborhood, or if we’re afraid to reside right here, we’re not going to need to keep,” she mentioned. “And that’s one thing of a heartbreak.

This story was completed as a collaboration between KHN and “This American Life.” Hearken to the companion audio story right here.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially unbiased service of the California Well being Care Basis.


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