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Pandemic stress and threats blamed for surge in health official resignations



TOPEKA, Kan. – The agency that oversees all local health departments across Kansas says stressors from the pandemic have led to a significant increase in leadership turnover.

According to Kansas Association of Local Health Departments Director Dennis Kriesel, 36 top health officials of the State’s 100 local health departments stepped down during the pandemic.

Kriesel says while some resignations were due to planned retirements, turnover was “significantly higher” due to the stress induced by the pandemic.

“There were a few death threats, also there were threats suggestive of bodily harm — and I don’t mean name-calling,” Kriesel said.

“We had one health administrator say they had a confrontation where a citizen physically blocked the door so she couldn’t get out of the building. Another administrator reported her dog had been poisoned.

Kriesel said those instances couldn’t be officially blamed on pandemic-related tensions, but the timing of all the incidents would suggest it was.

He said one county health official received a voicemail from a resident who threatened to shoot her in the face.

Kriesel says the height of tensions between community members and health department leaders came in the Fall of 2020. He said confusion between differing guidance from the CDC, state, and other outside factors caused a lot of tension and frustration to be directed towards County Health Administrators across the state.

However, he says tensions have sharply cooled as COVID-19 cases began to come down and vaccination rates began to rise.

Kriesel says most of the 36 open positions have been filled without issue, but some rural counties are struggling to fill their vacancies due to the complexity of the position.

In December, Shawnee Co. Health Department Director Dr. Gianfranco Pezzio abruptly resigned from his post during a virtual meeting of the Shawnee Co. Commission after commissioners implemented a COVID-related policy that went against his recommendations.