A group of public health experts wants the American Public Health Association to replace Dr. Leana Wen as a panelist at the APHA annual meeting in November in Boston.
Dr. Wen, a research professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, previously served as health commissioner for the city of Baltimore and president of Planned Parenthood. She plans to speak to APHA members about the public health “backlash” during a panel on the topic. And she knows very little about the reaction: Dr. Wen, a frequent media commentator on COVID-19, has faced death threats and harassment for her opinions on masking, vaccination and more; earlier this year, a Texas man pleaded guilty to threatening to shoot Dr. Wen after a federal inquiry in this threat.
The man who said he would shoot Dr. Wen said he refused to take her “miracle drug,” meaning the vaccine against COVID-19 she was advocating. Many of the other critics of Dr. Wen have been vaccine skeptics, mask mandate opponents and COVID-19 deniers. But a growing number of critics of Dr. Wen strongly supports the safety restrictions related to COVID-19. And it is members of this latter group who are now campaigning against Dr. Wen, on the grounds that she has downplayed the ongoing threat of COVID-19, particularly to the detriment of certain groups.
“We are asking our colleagues and fellow public health leaders to reconsider and replace Dr. Wen with someone whose work is consistent with anti-racist, anti-eugenic public health and community health practices,” it said. in one. petition signed by hundreds of public health workers, researchers and researchers (many of them junior researchers and students).
In other words, Dr. Wen is now facing backlash from some in public health over her public health response speech.
‘A terrible move’
“Through her media and social media platform, Dr. Wen has promoted unscientific, uncertain, performs, fatphobicAND unethical practices during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the petition states. “For example, in a recent article, Dr. Wen suggested this the infection must be accepted like anew normal.’ In another article, she writes how learning loss is a threat to children from parents who want to keep their children safe; despite the fact that as of 06.08.2022, 1376 children have died from the COVID-19 infection. In another article, she advocated for ‘spring vax hot,’ suggesting – while still on the rise – that municipalities drop all protections except vaccination. Her recommendations also included the unscientific and nonsensical suggestion of designating some aircraft to wear masks in response to an airborne pathogen.”
Statements of Dr. Wen are “antagonistic to and decrease the hard work of APHA members and colleagues who have had to deal with the consequences of her messages, some of whom have experienced harm compounded by being disabled and/or immunocompromised,” the statement continued. “Indeed, instead of listening to those who are most at risk and most harmed by her words, Dr. Wen has blocked disabled activists AND public health the experts on social media.”
Noting that Dr. Wen was fired from Planned Parenthood over internal disagreements over the future of the group (with Dr. Wen RECITED wanting to focus on women’s health in general over abortion specifically), the petition also argues that it “leadership failure AND unwillingness to address the political nature of abortion empowered attacks on abortion to escalate to the point we see today.” (The filing does not note that one of Dr. Wen’s fellow panelists is Dr. Thomas Dobbs, the former state health officer for Mississippi, whose name is attached to the U.S. Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health. This case led to the overturning of Roe v. Wade this year; Dr. Dobbs has said (that he was not involved, and that the Mississippi case bears his name only because he was the head of the state agency that inspected the now-closed abortion clinic.)
Dr. Wen, who was awarded the 2016 Milton and Ruth Roemer Award for Creative Work in Local Public Health by APHA, is an emergency medicine physician by training, but she has written and spoken extensively about a variety of public health issues for news organizations. for example. Washington Post. However, much of her commentary in recent years has focused on COVID-19. And as the pandemic has dragged on, the views of Dr. Wen were made largely in accordance with pandemic-related recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has been criticized by public health experts for its response to the pandemic, and director Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently admitted DISADVANTAGES in announcing an “ambitious” regulation. However, even though the CDC has disappointed many public health practitioners, it employs many public health experts and scientists, and its recommendations cannot be taken lightly.
However, some high-profile practitioners have publicly disputed Dr. Wen and have told APHA they are leaving the organization over this. Dr. Uché Blackstock, former associate professor of emergency medicine at New York University, for example, said on Twitter, “Just canceled my APHA membership. There is no rationalizing APHA giving a platform to someone who has consistently minimized the harms of COVID and certainly does not use a lens of equality in their comments.” (Dr. Blackstock also criticized APHA for not initially requiring face masks at the November meeting, a policy that has since been adopted.) Eric Feigl-Ding, an epidemiologist and health economist at New York’s Institute for Complex Systems England and co-founder of the World Health Network, too said on Twitter that he was canceling his APHA membership for “this terrible move.”
David Swedler, a public health research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, said he should attend this year’s APHA meeting in person because he serves on the group’s Governing Council, but he has encouraged others to sign the petition. (He has also publicly expressed concern about his obligations by paying Dr. Wen’s speaking fee, but Joe Bremner, the APHA spokesman, said Dr. Wen is an invited panelist and will not be paid to speak.) said Swedler Inside the High Ed through the email of Dr. Wen “has consistently maintained neoliberal stances on COVID-19 security measures throughout the pandemic. These positions consistently assumed a capacity for personal responsibility that was not available to much of the population.”
‘Healthy dialogue and disagreement’
Asked about the petition and other objections to Dr. Wen Bremner, the APHA spokesman, said in a written statement that public health “has a history of healthy dialogue and disagreement. Finding common ground in these discussions is how we move the needle forward toward creating healthy people in healthy communities. The letter, although inaccurate in some places, is another example of open debate to push the ground to have difficult discussions.” (Bremner also clarified that Dr. Wen is not a “key” speaker, as the petition refers to her.)
Bremner continued, “We value robust public health debate and support a respectful, evidence-based discussion. We appreciate her time and effort and the 7,000+ other people who will be speaking in a scientific session at the 2022 APHA Annual Meeting to share their work and experience.”
He added, “Specifically, Wen’s focus is on ‘Harassment, Harassment and Death Threats: Staying the Course While Under Attack.’ This is something that public health officials across the country have had to deal with, especially in recent years.
“None of this is easy”
Dr. Wen spoke to him Inside the High Ed background, but provided a written statement, on the record, citing the continued sensitivity of the matters at hand, including her personal safety.
“The panel I was invited to speak on, titled ‘Backlash,’ is intended to address the difficulties of public health policy formulation,” said Dr. Wen. “I understand that the panelists were chosen because we have on-the-ground experience dealing with controversies—for example, I’m talking about the complexities of navigating challenging circumstances based on my experiences communicating with the public during COVID-19 and, before that, running the Baltimore health department.”
Public health practitioners at the local, state, and federal levels “often work in challenging political environments. These are experiences that the other panelists and I hope to share with each other and with those who choose to attend our session,” she said.
In response to questions about how her public health guidance has changed over the course of the pandemic, Dr. Wen said early on, “there were few tools at our disposal and many unknowns about this new, deadly virus. The recommendations that I and other experts made were generally very cautious and emphasized mitigation measures such as masking and distancing. Now is a very different time. There are highly effective vaccines and treatments that protect most Americans from serious disease, and over 90 percent of the public has some level of immunity from vaccination or previous infection. In addition, scientists generally agree that Covid-19 is here to stay; therefore, our strategy must shift to living with this disease.”
Acknowledging that its current policy recommendations “are very different from what they were in 2021 or 2020,” Dr. Wen said “they have evolved, as has guidance from the CDC, which has recently eased restrictions, including ending quarantine for exposed individuals and no longer recommending distancing and grouping in schools. The public’s view of COVID-19 also has changed, which should be taken into account when formulating social recommendations.”
“None of this is easy,” said Dr. Wen. “There is no ‘right’ answer, as there are trade-offs to every intervention, as well as the cost of NOT pursuing any particular course of action. These nuanced conversations happen every day and are the kinds of respectful and thoughtful discussions, which I hope will happen in APHA and other academic settings.”