Kent Co. health director tells commissioners after almost being run off the road: ‘I need help’

Email details abuse after department issued school mask mandate

By: - September 20, 2021 2:36 pm

Dr. Adam London, Kent County administrative health officer | Screenshot

Updated 6:06 p.m., 9/21/21, with comments from Kent County Board of Commissioners Chair Mandy Bolter and the Kent County Sheriff’s Office

After a woman attempted to run Kent County Health Department director Adam London off the road just hours after he issued a mask mandate for some schools last month, the health officer issued a plea to the Kent County Board of Commissioners.

“I need help,” London wrote in an Aug. 22 email to the county commissioners, which Michigan Advance received today after filing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the Kent County Board of Commissioners last week. “My team and I are broken. I’m about done. I’ve done my job to the best of my ability. I’ve given just about everything to Kent County, and now I’ve given some more of my safety.”

London’s email followed his announcement on Aug. 20 that masks would be required for anyone in preschool through sixth grade school buildings in Kent County in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Kids under 12 are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

The decision to mandate masks in schools is supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, and a long list of groups local to Kent County, including Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, Mercy Health Saint Mary’s, and Metro Health — University of Michigan Health, among others.

Despite this support, London and other members of the Kent County Health Department have received vitriolic criticism, as well as threats of violence, over the mandate. At an Aug. 26 Kent County Board of Commissioners meeting, a large and often raucous crowd spewed harsh and aggressive words for London, who had to attend the meeting virtually due to concerns for his physical safety.

“I had a woman try to run me off the road at 70+ miles per hour…twice, on Friday night,” London wrote in his Aug. 22 email to commissioners. “I think we have all seen the aggression and violence displayed at meetings across the nation during the past week.”

“There is nothing to be gained by entertaining such people with dialog,” London continued. “In many cases, these are the same people who dismiss the plot against the governor [Gretchen Whitmer] as “just guys joking around” and the January 6th insurrection [at the U.S. Capitol] as a peaceful patriotic protest. I think it is a grave mistake to unnecessarily give them targets and platforms. There is a sickness in America far more insidious than COVID. You are more empowered to fight this disease than I am.”

London declined to comment for this story. The Kent County Sheriff’s Office said in a Sept. 21 statement that Kent County Undersheriff Charles DeWitt was contacted directly by London on the evening of Aug. 20 “about a traffic incident that had occurred on U.S. 131.”

“Dr. London informed Undersheriff DeWitt that an individual had attempted to run him off the expressway two times while he was traveling,” the sheriff’s office wrote.

Kent County Health Department | Anna Gustafson

“While Dr. London was able to provide the make of the vehicle involved, he was unable to get a license plate number or provide a detailed description of the vehicle,” the sheriff’s office continued in it statement. “Dr. London was given options as to when he could file a report; however, no report was filed with the Kent County Sheriff’s Office.”

Across Michigan, local health and education officials have increasingly faced aggression and threats of violence, including death threats, after issuing school mask mandates. Last school year, the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) required masks, but has left it up to local officials this school year. The DHHS has said it is advocating, but not requiring, that schools implement indoor masking policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Whitmer has said state officials are focusing on local districts implementing school mask policies because they believe residents will be more likely to follow those requirements than if they came from the state.

“We are relying on school districts to work with our local public health experts to develop policies and enlist the support of the community. We know that broad mandates are only so effective, and when they happen at the local level it increases compliance,” Whitmer told reporters earlier this month at an event in Kent County.

However, that decision has left local health and school officials to become the targets of public ire — and that, London said, is taking a deep toll on health department employees, himself and his family. 

Last week, I had a person yell out to me, “Hey mother******, I hope someone abuses your kids and forces you to watch.

– Email from Kent County Health Department director Adam London

 

In his Aug. 22 email to commissioners, in which the health officer provides extensive data supporting the county’s school mask requirement, London paints a dark picture of the abuse he has faced, from people “accusing me of being a deep state agent of liberal-progressive socialist powers that are working to undo the America they love (paraphrased minus expletives)” to others calling him a “child-abusing monster.”

“Last week, I had a person yell out to me, “Hey mother******, I hope someone abuses your kids and forces you to watch,” London wrote. 

London’s “health, my family and now our safety have paid a price for my work over the past year and a half,” the health officer told county commissioners in his email.

“I want you to know that I will not needlessly expose myself (or my family for that matter) to the brute mob hatred that is crudely evident in a vocal and energized minority,” London wrote. “These are people who hope to force their views on others through intimidation, aggression, and their rhetoric suggests violence as well. I will not participate in witch trials in which the science I’ve presented, and the opinions of legitimate experts, is reduced to the same stage as people living in echo-chambers of junk science, salespeople, and Youtube videos. For the leaders of these misinformation campaigns, it’s never really been about our data; it’s been about their dogma.”

Melissa Ryan, the editor of the Ctrl Alt-Right Delete newsletter and an expert on extremism, emphasized this idea in a recent interview with Michigan Advance. The vitriol lobbed at local health and education officials is often perpetuated and exacerbated not by local residents but through right-wing talking points and national funding campaigns, Ryan said.

Personally, I don't believe they have the authority to implement a mask mandate and should they try, I will refuse to follow their mandate and encourage others to disobey this overreach into people's lives.

– Rep. Stephen Johnson (R-Wayland)

“You can’t really talk about what’s happening in Michigan without talking about other states,” Ryan told the Advance. “It’s national politics and national money and strategy being spent to pit neighbor against neighbor in school districts.”

It’s not just attending large commission meetings who have hurled intense criticism for London and health department employees. Four West Michigan Republican state legislators — state reps. Thomas Albert (R-Lowell), Mark Huizenga (R-Walker), Steven Johnson (R-Wayland), and Bryan Posthumus (R-Cannon Twp.) — recently threatened to pull funding from the Kent County Health Department if masks are mandated in schools. 

“Along with several of my colleagues, I’ve sent a letter to the Kent County Health Department calling on them to avoid implementing any mask mandates,” Johnson wrote on his official government Facebook page on Aug. 16. “Personally, I don’t believe they have the authority to implement a mask mandate and should they try, I will refuse to follow their mandate and encourage others to disobey this overreach into people’s lives.”

And after members of the public called on Kent County commissioners to rescind the Health Department’s mask mandate, both the county’s in-house legal team and an outside counsel group, Warner Norcross & Judd, concluded that is not legal.

“Both opinions concluded that neither the Kent County Board of Commissioners nor the County Administrator/Controller have the authority to intervene in the health officer’s performance of his statutory duties under Michigan’s Public Health Code,” the county wrote in Sept. 8 statement.

Members of the public also have called on London to resign, or for the county to fire the health officer.

These are people who hope to force their views on others through intimidation, aggression, and their rhetoric suggests violence as well. I will not participate in witch trials in which the science I’ve presented, and the opinions of legitimate experts, is reduced to the same stage as people living in echo-chambers of junk science, salespeople, and Youtube videos.

– Email from Kent County Health Department director Adam London

“If you want to fire me, or censure me, or pass a resolution condemning me, by all means please proceed,” London wrote in his Aug. 22 email. “Do what you need to do your job. But first, let me share my prayer with you: I pray that people more powerful than me, Democrats and Republicans, rise up with one voice and say, ‘we will not tolerate or provide quarter for this nonsense in our part of America.’ Public service is honorable and noble. Change the laws if they’re not good; don’t destroy the people who are carrying out laws you don’t like. If people like Adam London aren’t going to keep doing this work, who will?”

In response to the threats of violence London has received, Democratic Kent County commissioners issued a statement of support for the health officer and the county health department. Republican commissioners were asked to sign their names to the statement from Democrats; none did so. 

“Many Kent County employees have been stretched to the breaking point during the pandemic, but none more so than those in the Health Department,” reads the statement  from Democratic County Commissioners Phil Skaggs, Michelle McCloud, Carol Hennessy, Melissa LaGrand, Dave Bulkowski, Robert Womack, and Stephen Wooden. 

Kent County Board of Commissioners Chair Mandy Bolter and Vice Chair Stan Stek, both Republicans, did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story. Following the story’s publication, Bolter issued a statement on Sept. 21.

“As a large and diverse county, we will not agree on every issue,” Bolter said. “However, we are one community and  we should hold ourselves to the highest standard of public discourse. Threats of violence against any resident or county employee is, without question, unacceptable and  should be immediately reported to the proper authorities.”

The Democratic commissioners said their Sept. 15 statement was issued “in absence of official public support from the Board of Commissioners.”

“We have been shocked to learn that [London] and his family have received threats to their physical safety and disheartened to see his reputation abused in public forums,” the Democratic commissioners wrote. “While it is our wish that all Kent County Commissioners would unite in publicly supporting [London] and his team, we will not wait to express our gratitude for the Health Department and [London]. We support the August 20th health order requiring mask use in PK-6 educational settings and appreciate their work to keep the people of Kent County healthy and safe in the face of a serious threat.”

Skaggs, a Democratic commissioner who represents portions of southeastern Grand Rapids and East Grand Rapids, said in an interview with Michigan Advance that “every member of the county commission is aware of the threats to Adam London and the Health Department and the attempted vehicular assault against Adam London.”

We were hoping that the Republican leadership would take action, and they did nothing.

– Democratic County Commissioner Phil Skaggs

“We were hoping that the Republican leadership would take action, and they did nothing,” Skaggs continued. “We felt it was necessary for us to [issue the statement], even if we had to act alone. I encouraged them to sign onto the statement. I think unfortunately some of them agree with the message that masks are ineffective, that the pandemic is a hoax, and that the vaccine is unproven and dangerous, but I think the majority of them are simply unwilling to take a courageous stand on behalf of public health.”

In his email to commissioners, London wrote that “because my character is under attack,” he wanted the elected officials to know more about him.

“I am a Christian, and I embrace my job because it is an expression of that working faith,” he wrote. “ … I attend church on Sundays and holy days, pray and study every day, and you can often find me spending my lunch hour at St. Andrew’s Cathedral attending noon mass and praying for you, my co-workers, the people of Kent County, and the wisdom to do my job well.

“Others are calling me a traitor to our nation and liberty who must be stopped at all costs,” London wrote. “Really? I’m the grandson of two WWII heroes, the son and step-son of men who served during Vietnam, and the brother of a soldier who served in Afghanistan. We proudly wave the flag at my house and in my office. Faith, Family and Country.”

Ultimately, London told commissioners, he hopes elected officials will take a hard look at themselves and how they are doing their own jobs.

“I also believe it would be more helpful for the legislature to work on new laws which better protect rights and public health instead of attacking public servants,” London wrote.

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Anna Gustafson
Anna Gustafson

Anna Gustafson is the assistant editor at Michigan Advance, where her beats include economic justice, health care and immigration. Previously the founder of the Muskegon Times and the editor at Rapid Growth Media in Grand Rapids, Anna has worked as an editor and reporter for news outlets across the country. She began her journalism career reporting on state politics in Wisconsin and has gone on to cover government, racial justice and immigration reform in New York City, education in Connecticut, the environment in Wyoming, and more. Previously, Anna lived in Argentina and Morocco, and, when she’s not working, she’s often trying to perfect the empanada and couscous recipes she fell in love with in these countries. You’ll likely also find her working on her century-old home in downtown Lansing, writing that ever-elusive novel and hiking throughout Michigan.

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