The rise in attacks on public health officials has weakened the public health workforce and complicated COVID-19 mitigation efforts.
To examine the share of US adults who believed harassing or threatening public health officials because of COVID-19 business closures was justified and the factors shaping those beliefs.
Design, Setting, and Participants
The Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Civic Life and Public Health Survey was fielded from November 11 to 30, 2020, and July 26 to August 29, 2021. A nationally representative cohort of 1086 US adults was included.
Main Outcomes and Measures
Respondents were asked how much they believed that threatening or harassing public health officials for business closures to slow COVID-19 transmission was justified. Adjusted differences in beliefs regarding attacks on public health officials were examined by respondent sociodemographic and political characteristics and by trust in science.
Of 1086 respondents who completed both survey waves, 565 (52%) were women, and the mean (SE) age was 49 (0.77) years. Overall, 177 respondents (16%) were Hispanic, 125 (11%) were non-Hispanic Black, 695 (64%) were non-Hispanic White, and 90 (8%) were non-Hispanic and another race. From November 2020 to July and August 2021, the share of adults who believed harassing or threatening public health officials because of business closures was justified rose from 20% (n = 218) to 25% (n = 276) (P = .046) and 15% (n = 163) to 21% (n = 232) (P = .01), respectively. In multivariable regression analysis, respondents who trusted science not much or not at all were more likely to view threatening public health officials as justified compared with who trusted science a lot (November 2020: 35% [95% CI, 21%-49%] vs 7% [95% CI, 4%-9%]; P < .001; July and August 2021: 47% [95% CI, 33%-61%] vs 15% [95% CI, 11%-19%]; P < .001). There were increases in negative views toward public health officials between November 2020 and July and August 2021, among those earning $75 000 or more annually (threatening justified: 7 [95% CI, 1-14] percentage points; P = .03), those with some college education (threatening justified: 6 [95% CI, 2-11] percentage points; P = .003), those identifying as politically independent (harassing justified: 9 [95% CI, 3-14] percentage points; P = .01), and those trusting science a lot (threatening justified: 8 [95% CI, 4-13] percentage points; P < .001).
Conclusions and Relevance
While antagonism toward public health officials was concentrated among those doubting science and groups most negatively affected by the pandemic (eg, those with lower income and less education), the findings of this study suggest that there has been a shift toward such beliefs within more economically advantaged subgroups and those more trusting of science. Restoring public trust in public health officials will require nuanced engagement with diverse groups.