‘I need to heal’: Michigan health officer resigns in wake of mask mandate anger

“People told me, ‘You’re a disgusting person who hates children, and I hope you burn in hell’”

By: - March 3, 2022 5:50 am

Health Department of Northwest Michigan Health Officer Lisa Peacock with Medical Director Dr. Josh Meyerson | Courtesy photo

When Lisa Peacock resigns as the health officer at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan at the end of April, she plans to get as far away emotionally as she can from these past two years. 

She plans to heal.

Heal from the trauma of the pandemic. From being scared for her life. From receiving countless vitriolic threats spewing that she “hates children” because she issued a school mask mandate — a requirement meant to prevent children from getting COVID-19.

She plans to heal from wondering if public meetings would turn into riots. From feeling as though she can’t go to the bathroom alone or she’d be attacked by a mob irate over her pandemic health requirements. There is a deep sense of relief that she’ll no longer have to deal with some of her employers — health department board members — not defending her as she faced seemingly endless and frightening threats in the wake of her school mask mandate, as well as encouraging anger against her through social media posts.

“Because I am a health care provider, I know what trauma looks like; I know what it does to people,” said Peacock, who announced last week that she will resign April 29 because of a “hostile work environment” created by some board members over the department’s school mask mandate.

“I need to heal before I can put my best out there; that’s what I’m going to focus on” after her resignation, said Peacock, who has worked for close to three decades in health care and has been in her current position since 2015. “I need to heal. I need to heal myself so I can continue my role as a healer.”

Peacock emphasized it wasn’t all of the board members who created this tension over her school mask mandate — anger over which has led to health officials across the state and country being targeted by a public that grew increasingly irate throughout the pandemic — but enough that it has made her job untenable. Following a drop in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, the department dropped its mask mandate on Feb. 17, but Peacock said the relationship with the board has not improved. Instead, the board has considered cuts to the health department’s funding, something board member Charlie MacInnis, a supporter of Peacock, said is not expected to pass.

The Health Department of Northwest Michigan has for 90 years provided health services in Emmett, Charlevoix, Otsego, and Antrim counties. More recently, the health department has contracted with the Benzie-Leelanau District Health District; Peacock also serves as the health officer for that district. She will also leave her position there when she resigns.

“Their lack of support and actions they’ve taken are making it impossible for me to do my job effectively — whether it’s publicly encouraging this behavior by saying, ‘Stand up against the public health officer or the public health mandates or recommendations,”’ Peacock said in reference to some of the health board members. “Or by proposing cutting funding. For me, I’m burnt out, but it’s not burnout leading me out the door. It’s feeling I’m in a position where I can’t effectively do my job.”

‘It immediately shifted to something scary’

As Michigan students prepared to return to school last August, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in northwest Michigan were spiking. 

Parents kept calling their health leaders: What was going to be done, they asked, in light of the fact that their child could not yet be vaccinated? How were they going to be safe in school? 

Because Gov. Gretchen Whitmer could no longer issue a statewide mask mandate — the GOP-appointed majority on the state Supreme Court struck down Whitmer’s executive orders in October 2020 and the Republican-led state legislature rescinded her ability to issue executive orders in the summer of 2021 — and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) had opted not to institute any masking requirements, Peacock, like health officials throughout the state, decided to act.

“We’d heard from parents begging us to do something to protect their children who couldn’t be vaccinated then,” Peacock said.

By the time the health officer decided to implement a schools mask mandate in August 2021, the health department had also received “hundreds of letters” from local health care workers pleading with them to implement a masking requirement to lessen the spread of COVID-19.

Not only would it make the children safer, the letters from health care workers explained, but it would keep the local hospitals from being completely overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. 

Health Department of Northwest Michigan Health Officer Lisa Peacock with Andy Weston, director of Emergency Medical Services for Emmet County | Courtesy photo

Peacock knew the school mask mandate would bring anger. Like health officials across the state, she had gotten threatening phone calls and letters throughout the pandemic from individuals who blamed her for previous mask mandates issued by the governor and the DHHS. But, she explained, her responsibility was to keep her communities safe, and, in a pandemic that has killed nearly 1 million Americans and more than 30,000 Michiganders, one of the best ways she could do that for those unable to access the vaccine. Last August, any child under the age of 12 was unable to get a vaccine.

When she issued the mask mandate on Aug. 27, the public outrage was unlike anything she’d experienced, Peacock explained. 

“It immediately shifted to something really scary,” she said. “I received lots and lots of voicemails and threats. People told me, ‘You’re a disgusting person who hates children, and I hope you burn in hell.’” 

It wasn’t just the general public that was angry. Some of Peacock’s employers — the health department’s board — were irate. A couple days after Peacock issued the mask mandate, she received a letter from Commissioners Robert Pallarito of Otsego County, Scott Hankins of Charlevoix County, Jarris Rubingh of Antrim County, and David Bachelor of Emmet County demanding that the mask order be rescinded.

Pallarito also took to Facebook, claiming the “democratic process had been hijacked” because of the mask order and encouraging the public to “stand up to” Peacock over the requirement. 

It immediately shifted to something really scary. I received lots and lots of voicemails and threats. People told me, ‘You’re a disgusting person who hates children, and I hope you burn in hell.’

– Lisa Peacock, health officer at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan

Pallarito, Hankins, Rubingh, and Bachelor did not respond to requests for comment.

As public vitriol reached a tenor she’d not seen before, Peacock attended a Sept. 7 board of health meeting that became so raucous that Peacock was deeply concerned that it would turn into a riot over the mask mandate. 

“I can’t tell you the trauma — I couldn’t use the public restroom that day,” Peacock said. “I had to ask someone to accompany me to the restroom.”

That day two board of health commissioners resigned and Peacock took a two-week leave of absence. Health board members David White and Dave Bachelor resigned and were replaced by Charlie MacInnis and Matt Koontz. The board of health is composed of two county commissioners from Antrim, Charlevoix, Emmet, and Otsego counties. Current board members are: Rubingh and Christian Marcus from Antrim County, Shirley Roloff and Hankins of Charlevoix County, MacInnis and Koontz of Emmet County, and Pallarito and Julie Powers from Otsego County.

“Lisa was endangered, embattled and shocked,” MacInnis said of the Sept. 7 meeting. “The meeting was so chaotic that the library which hosted it said you can’t come back.”

After the September meeting, Peacock filed a complaint with Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel over some health board members’ actions, arguing that they endangered the well-being of herself and her staff — some of whom have left during the pandemic because of that.

“Nobody should have to endure those kinds of working conditions,” Peacock said. “And when your employer is helping to create those conditions? That’s one of the reasons I resigned. I would never treat an employee that way. If I hear an employee feared for their safety — and I have — I do everything in my power to protect them.”

The threats continued against Peacock and her staff. “We had state police monitoring social media activity and they’d call me with credible threats,” Peacock said. One day, local law enforcement had to work in the health department’s building due to threats; another day, the building was shut down entirely out of concerns that people’s lives were in danger.

“Parents have filed criminal complaints against me because of mask mandates,” Peacock said. “I’ve had people tell me I committed crimes against humanity, and they’re going to make a citizen’s arrest. They didn’t, but it’s scary.”

‘It’s part of a national infection’

Some board members have thrown their support behind Peacock, including Roloff and MacInnis. Roloff, Peacock noted, was the only commissioner to face down the angry crowd at the Sept. 7 meeting. [MacInnis was not yet on the board for that meeting.]

“Our 86-year-old commissioner was the only one who stood up to the crowd,” Peacock said.

MacInnis, who joined the board after that meeting in light of the other two commissioners resigning, said Peacock “has done an outstanding job.”

Mario Tama/Getty Images

“She’s performed in a heroic manner,” MacInnis said. “If she wants to take a rest, she deserves it.” 

The anger over the mask mandates, MacInnis said, is “part of a national infection.” 

“I had hoped it would not spread up here, but it has,” he said. “The mask mandate which many school people desperately wanted for the benefit of the children couldn’t be imposed by local school boards because of parental pressure. Lisa Peacock used her authority, stepped up and did what the local schools could not do. And they were very, very grateful.”

For the overwhelming majority of the pandemic, attitudes towards masking have been partisan. In the fall, for example, 85% of Democrats and 32% of Republicans backed masks in schools nationally, according to a poll from Axios. As the vaccine has become more widely available for children, COVID-19 numbers have declined, and more Democratic governors have dropped mask mandates, Democrats have increasingly fallen out of favor with masking.

‘What I’m going through, it’s happening at all 45 departments’

 Peacock, MacInnis and Michigan Association for Local Public Health Executive Director Norm Hess said they’re deeply concerned about the impact this outrage is having, and will have, on public health. Nine of the state’s 45 health department officers have left during the pandemic, Hess said. Some of those were planned retirements, but some were because of the tensions stemming from pandemic health requirements, Hess said.

In Berrien County, for example, two high-ranking health department officials resigned last fall over the politicization of the pandemic. In Kent County, the health department’s director was nearly run off the road after implementing a mask mandate.

“There is this anger virus that is infecting whole communities,” MacInnis said. “What does it translate into? People being reluctant to go into public service? 

“People have different viewpoints, which is fine, but when it goes from difference of opinion to anger, I don’t know who wins,” he continued. “Who benefits from attacking the public health system, which takes care of little children, people who need dental health, kids in high school, drinking water, safety at restaurants?”

Not only is there an exodus of public health workers happening nationwide, the anger that has grown during the pandemic is keeping people from wanting to serve in public health — and particularly in leadership roles, Hess said.

“I’m very concerned about the public health workforce going forward,” Hess said.

“I think this is influencing people’s decisions against stepping into those leadership roles because of what they’ve seen their predecessors experience,” he continued.

There is this anger virus that is infecting whole communities. What does it translate into? People being reluctant to go into public service?

– Charlie MacInnis, member of the Health Department of Northwest Michigan's Board of Health

Hess said “many health officers have experienced some level of what [Lisa] went through.”

He doesn’t know of others who are expected to imminently resign, though he’s deeply concerned about the trauma and burnout public health workers are experiencing.

“It does concern me that this will not be the last resignation,” he said.

As far as what needs to be done to address the deep fractures in the public health system, Hess said the public needs to better understand what a health officer does. They are, he explained, here to provide accessible, affordable health services to typically marginalized people and communities. Peacock’s health department, for example, provides everything from blood lead testing to dental care, services for pregnant people and infants, substance use prevention services, and more.

Under Peacock’s tenure at the department, she expanded health services to schools, including school-based health clinics and mental health offerings. 

“Lisa really is a rock star,” Hess said. “That health department, they are seen as an exemplar for many public health programs.” 

Hess went on to call Peacock’s resignation “really sad.”

“I just feel awful that someone of her caliber and training and experience felt this was untenable,” he said. “It’s sad on many levels. One of those levels is the people of those four counties have lost the leadership for the programs they need to maintain their health up there. It’s disruptive, and I can’t imagine this is going to be the last time this happens.” 

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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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