Colorado lawmakers introduce a bill expanding defamation protections for public health workers

Written by Patty Nyberg, Associated Press / Report to America

A year into the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, public health officials in Colorado have asked lawmakers to pass a bill that would make publishing personal information threatening the safety of health workers and their families illegal.

Under current law, defamation or disclosure of personal information that poses an imminent or serious threat to law enforcement, humanitarian workers, or their families is a misdemeanor of the first degree. The proposed bill would add employees and contractors from state, county, or district public health agencies to the existing law.

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Susan Whelan, director of the El Paso County Health Department, told the State Council’s Judiciary Committee that over the past year she has had to drive unmarked cars and escort them by law enforcement due to the community’s hostile reactions to the pandemic-related restrictions.

“We should be able to be proud of the work we do and the work we do and serve the community without fear for our safety,” Whelan said.

She added that team members found that identifying themselves as public health workers had led to controversial and outrageous discussions about “the consequences of this new virus” and the role of the Ministry of Health in contact tracing and implementing state policy and restrictions within the province.

Whelan said some of the reactions were threatening, such as telling local public health workers that “it is best to call an ambulance” if they show up somewhere and “will end up in body bags.”

Across the United States, public health officials have found themselves at the forefront of fighting the pandemic as well as politicizing health orders and scientific findings about the virus. For health officials in small and rural communities, safety threats and concerns are more apparent because they are often more faceless than cities.

Root County Commissioner Beth Milton said that despite the county attempting to bear “public credit and blame” for coronavirus rules, local public health officials were still targets of phone calls, emails and grocery store encounters over virus science and public policy decisions.

In December 2020, the director of public health for Roth County was detained in her office by a group of largely unmasked protesters outside the municipal court.

“I really share these examples to show how vulnerable our public health workers are in a small community like ours,” Milton said.

The draft law was approved by the Judicial Committee in the House of Representatives unanimously, and will be presented in the Chamber of Deputies for discussion.

Nieberg is a member of the Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a not-for-profit national service program that puts journalists in local newsrooms to report classified issues.


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