In Michigan, an anti-vaccination fanatic tries to run a county health official off the road at 70 mph. In Germany, a service station attendant enforcing a mask mandate is shot and killed by a customer who objects to the rule. In Japan, an angry anti-vaccination activist sends a faxed letter to authorities threatening a Yakuza “bloodbath” at a coronavirus vaccination center. In Australia, protest crowds featuring an amalgam of neo-Nazis, vaccine conspiracists, and construction workers attacked the headquarters of the local maritime union in Melbourne over a recently announced vaccine mandate.
The threat of violence has lurked just under the surface of most right-wing anti-vaccination/anti-masking protests that have erupted over the past year. But as pressure continues to mount for unvaccinated people to get their COVID-19 vaccine shots, the fanatical ideologues among them are increasingly ratcheting up violence as their form of resistance. And it has become a global problem.
The threats have been an ongoing feature of the misinformation-fueled right-wing resistance to pandemic health measures since protests first began breaking out in 2020. The result has been a steady exodus of health care workers from the profession that was observed nearly a year ago.
"Some of our public health officials have been physically threatened, politically scapegoated," said Lori Freeman of the National Association of County and City Health Officials. "Their roles have been diminished, their authorities have been in some cases taken away."
At least 248 public health leaders resigned, retired or were fired between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, according to an ongoing investigation by the Associated Press and Kaiser Health News.
Among the threatened officials was Adam London, director of Michigan’s Kent County Health Department, who detailed the nature of the threats in a letter to county commissioners. He told them that a woman driving more than 70 mph tried twice to run him off the road. Another person called him an expletive and yelled, “I hope someone abuses your kids and forces you to watch!”
London said he had been labeled a traitor to the nation and to liberty, and accused by anti-vaccination fanatics of being a “deep state agent of liberal-progressive-socialist powers that are working to undo the America they love.”
The threats and violence are not confined to the United States:
- Near Trier, Germany, a man shot a small-town gas station attendant after being denied service for his refusal to wear a mask inside the station shop. The man turned himself in to police later, saying the attendant was responsible for his own death: According to the state prosecutor, the man said he had felt “pushed into a corner” and had held the victim “responsible for the situation as a whole because he had enforced the rules.”
- Protesters in Melbourne, Australia, clashed with police after they attempted to invade the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union building downtown to protest a recently announced mandate requiring construction workers to be vaccinated. Many of the protesters were far-right extremists who deliberately dressed as construction workers. "This crowd was heavily infiltrated by neo-Nazis and other right wing extremist groups and it is clear that a minority of those who participated were actual union members," the union said in a statement. The following day, the same mix of protesters clashed with police near the city’s noted World War II monument, the Shrine of Remembrance.
- In Vancouver, British Columbia, a woman riding the SkyTrain public-transit system was assaulted when she asked a maskless couple whether they had any to wear. The man and woman replied: “What’s it to you?,” and then the woman got up and knocked her interlocutor out of her seat. Both then proceeded to beat the woman as she lay on the floor of the train.
- In Tokyo, Japan, a man claiming to be a member of an organized-crime clan sent a fax to a COVID vaccination center with a cover page titled “Death Threat.” It warned officials at the center that he intended to perpetrate a “bloodbath” there. When the 38-year-old was arrested, he told police he made the threat out of frustration after his job as a transportation worker was ended by the pandemic.
But the violence has become even more widespread in the United States, and has been spiraling upward with a litany of incidents in every corner of the country. The incidents also have been occurring with greater frequency and intensity.
- A trio of Texans visiting New York City created a brawl at a Manhattan restaurant after its hostess requested proof of vaccination in order to be seated. That requirement, ordered by city health officials and now standard for seated dining throughout the metropolis, has been in place for several weeks now; an executive order threatening fines for failure to do so was issued just days before. Video footage shows the three women punched the hostess outside the building’s front door.
- At a school board meeting in Ankeny, Iowa, to discuss the imposition of a mask mandate in the district’s schools, anti-masking activists turned out in large numbers and issued threats against the board members. “We know where you live! We’re going to stalk you! We’re coming to your house!” a QAnon activist shouted at the board after it approved the mandate in spite of the intimidation.
- Similar threats were directed at a Tennessee school board for mandating masks in schools. One parent angrily followed a health care official who testified in favor of the mandate at the meeting out to his car, telling him: “We know who you are. You can leave freely, but we will find you.” Another parent told the board: “There’s a place for you guys—there’s a bad place in hell!”
- A county in Colorado mandated security at vaccine clinics after workers faced increasing harassment. The threatening behavior included slashing the mobile clinic signs with a knife, throwing lit fireworks into one of the tents at the clinic, and people driving menacingly toward staffers, hurling insults and trash, and running over signs.
- In Georgia, state officials shut down a mobile vaccination clinic after health care workers were threatened by a swarm of protesters. Officials said the workers faced “harassment, bullying and threats directed at our team.” “Aside from feeling threatened themselves, staff realized no one would want to come to that location for a vaccination under those circumstances, so they packed up and left,” the spokesperson said.
- In Durham, North Carolina, city bus drivers suffered several brutal assaults while enforcing a mask requirement to ride on city buses. At least one of the attacks resulted in injuries to the driver. In response, the city began installing safety partitions to separate drivers from passengers. Officials said there had been more than 100 incidents in the past year.
- A Michigan county medical health officer received a “credible death threat” over her order requiring masks for students in elementary schools. Hired only last January, Dr. Pamela Hackert received the threat by phone at her Genessee County home in August. The sheriff’s office is investigating the incident. Her order inspired protests at the county commissioners’ meetings. Commissioner Ellen Ellenburg said the debate over the mask mandate had become a “witch hunt”: “It’s not safe for her to come in here,” Ellenburg said of Hackert. “I’m not going to bring her in here to be attacked.”
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief epidemiology adviser, has been a particular target of the vitriol. He told interviewer Ted Koppel that he had been forced to acquire federal protection as a result of the threats.
"I have to tell you, I'm not afraid of myself, for myself," Fauci said. "But the thing that really is disturbing to me is the harassment, continual harassment, of my three daughters. The crazies, you know, know who they are, know where they live, know what their telephone number is, know where they work. It infuriates me."
Officials have pleaded with the public to end a seemingly nonstop stream of invective and threatening rhetoric and behavior. It seems not to have had any effect.
In Georgia, Public Health Commissioner Dr. Kathleen Toomey called out the harassment. "I've become aware that many of our line workers who are doing these vaccinations are receiving threats, are receiving hostile emails, harassing emails," she said during a press event with Gov. Brian Kemp. "But it shouldn't be happening to those nurses who are working in the field that try to keep this state safe.”
Joshua Sharfstein, a public health professor at Johns Hopkins University, called for enhanced protection for public health officials and demanded that Republican officials step up and participate. Sharfstein said officials need to draw the line at threats of violence and harassment against public health officials and other workers.
“Protecting public health and public health officials has to be one of the major lessons of this pandemic,” he said. “We have to come to a consensus that these kinds of attacks are totally outside of what's acceptable.”
Sharfstein noted that many health care workers enter the field not to seek the limelight, and being unceremoniously thrust into a virulent public role at the center of a conspiracism-fueled controversy is profoundly jarring. “I'm worried for the safety of many public health officers who are having to handle the anger of people who have been whipped into a frenzy,” he said.
A health care official in Washington state who was accused of “trying to kill babies by pushing vaccine” told Crosscut.com that the scenario—in which public health officials face resistance from the very residents they’re working 70-hour weeks to protect, people fed misinformation by politicians that is reinforced on social media—had pushed most people she knew in the profession to consider another line of work.
“I feel more like an elected official than I ever wanted to because I’ve become the target of all this public anger,” Lautenbach said. “It was just a hell storm, starting on day one.”