Public health backlash to Dr. Leana Wen talk on backlash

A group of public health experts wants the American Public Health Association to replace Dr. Leana Wen as a panelist at the APHA’s annual meeting in November in Boston.

Dr. Wen, research professor of health policy and management at George Washington University, previously served as the health commissioner for the city of Baltimore and the president of Planned Parenthood. She’s scheduled to speak to APHA members about “backlash” against public health during a panel on this theme. And she knows quite a bit about backlash: Dr. Wen, a frequent media commentator on COVID-19, has faced death threats and harassment over her thoughts on masking, vaccination and more; earlier this year, a Texas man pleaded guilty to threatening to shoot Dr. Wen following an federal investigation into this threat.

The man who said he’d shoot Dr. Wen said he refused to take her “wonder drug,” meaning the COVID-19 vaccine she was advocating. Many of Dr. Wen’s other critics have been vaccine skeptics, mask mandate opponents and COVID-19 deniers. But an increasing number of Dr. Wen’s critics very much support COVID-19–related safety restrictions. And it’s members of this latter group who are now campaigning against Dr. Wen’s upcoming talk, on the grounds that she’s downplayed the ongoing COVID-19 threat, especially to the detriment of certain groups.

“We are demanding our colleagues and fellow leaders in public health to reconsider and replace Dr. Wen with someone whose work is consistent with anti-racist, anti-eugenicist public health practices and community health,” reads a petition signed by hundreds of public health workers, researchers and scholars (many of them junior scholars and students).

Put another way, Dr. Wen is now facing backlash from some in public health over her talk on backlash in public health.

‘A Horrendous Move’

“Through her platform on news outlets and social media, Dr. Wen has promoted unscientificold, unsafe, ableist, fatphobicand unethical practices during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the petition says. “For instance, in a recent article, Dr. Wen suggested that infection should be accepted as a ‘new normal.’ In another article, she writes about how learning loss is a threat to children from parents who want to keep their kids safe; Despite the fact that as of 8/6/2022, 1,376 children have died from COVID-19 infection. In yet another article, she advocated for ‘hot vax spring,’ suggesting—while still in an omicron surge—that municipalities lift all protections except vaccination. Her recommendations also included the unscientific and nonsensical suggestion of designating a section of planes to wearing masks in response to an airborne pathogen.”

Dr. Wen’s statements are “antagonistic to and diminish the hard work of APHA members and colleagues who have had to deal with the fallout of her messaging, some of whom have experienced compounded harm from being disabled and/or immunocompromised,” the statement continues. “Indeed, instead of listening to those most at-risk and most harmed by her words, Dr. Wen has famously blocked disabled and public health expert on social media.”

Noting that Dr. Wen was fired from Planned Parenthood over internal disagreements about the group’s future (with Dr. Wen reportedly wanting to focus on women’s health generally over abortion specifically), the petition also argues that her “leadership failure and unwillingness to address abortion’s political nature empowered attacks on abortion to escalate to the point we see today.” (The petition does not note that one of Dr. Wen’s fellow panelists is Dr. Thomas Dobbs, former state health officer for Mississippi, whose name is attached to the US Supreme Court case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. That case led to the overturning of Roe. vs. Wade this year; Dr. Dobbs has said that he was not involved and that the Mississippi case only bore his name because he was head of the state agency that inspected the now-shuttered abortion clinic.)

Dr. Wen, whom the APHA awarded its Milton and Ruth Roemer Prize for Creative Local Public Health Work in 2016, is an emergency medicine physician by training, but she’s long written and spoken about a variety of public health issues for news organizations such as The Washington Post. Most of her commentary in the past few years has focused on COVID-19, however. And as the pandemic has lingered, Dr. Wen’s views have largely become aligned with pandemic-related recommendations from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC has been criticized by public health experts for its pandemic response, and director Dr. Rochelle Walensky recently acknowledged the agency’s shortcomings in announcing an “ambitious” overhaul. Yet even as the CDC has disappointed many public health practitioners, it employs many public health experts and scientists, and its recommendations can’t be considered fringe.

Still, certain high-profile practitioners have objected publicly to Dr. Wen’s talk and told the APHA they’re leaving the organization over it. Dr. Uché Blackstock, former associate professor of emergency medicine at New York University, for instance, said on Twitter, “I just canceled my APHA membership. There is no rationalizing APHA consistently giving a platform to someone who has minimized the harms of COVID and certainly does not use an equity lens in their commentary.” (Dr. Blackstock also criticized the APHA for not initially requiring face masks at the November meeting, a policy that has since been adopted.) Eric Feigl-Ding, epidemiologist and health economist at the New England Complex Systems Institute and co-founder of the World Health Network, also said on Twitter that he was canceling his APHA membership over “this horrendous move.”

David Swedler, a public health research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, has said that he must attend this year’s APHA meeting in person because he’s part of the group’s Governing Council, but he’s encouraged others to sign the petition. (He’s also publicly expressed concern about his dues paying Dr. Wen’s speaking fee, but Joe Bremner, APHA spokesperson, said that Dr. Wen is an invited panelist and won’t be paid to speak.) Swedler told Inside Higher Ed via email that Dr. Wen “has consistently taken neoliberal positions on COVID-19 safety measures throughout the pandemic. These positions consistently assume a capacity for personal responsibility that was not available to vast swaths of the population.”

‘Healthy Dialogue and Disagreement’

Asked about the petition and other opposition to Dr. Wen’s talk, Bremner, the APHA spokesperson, said in a written statement that public health “has a history of healthy dialogue and disagreement. Finding the 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 field to have difficult discussions.” (Bremner also clarified that Dr. Wen is not a “keynote” speaker, as the petition refers to her.)

Bremner continued, “We value vigorous debate about public health and support a respectful and fact-based discussion. We appreciate the time and effort of she and the other 7,000+ people who will speak in a scientific session at APHA’s 2022 Annual Meeting to share their work and experience.”

He added, “Specifically, Wen’s focus is on ‘Harassment, bullying and death threats: Staying the course while under attack.’ This is something public health officials across the country have had to deal with, especially the last few years.”

‘None of This Is Easy’

Dr. We talked to Inside Higher Ed on background but provided a written, on-the-record statement, citing the continued sensitivity of the issues at hand, including her own personal security.

“The panel that I was invited to speak on, entitled ‘Backlash’, is meant to address the difficulties of formulating public health policy,” Dr. Wen said. “It’s my understanding that panelists were selected because we have on-the-ground experience dealing with controversy—for example, I’m speaking about the complexities of navigating challenging circumstances that draw upon my experiences communicating to the public during COVID-19 and, before that, running Baltimore’s health department.”

Practitioners of public health on 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 one another and 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 that early on, “there were few tools at our disposal and much unknown about this new, deadly virus. The recommendations that I and other experts made were generally very keen and emphasized mitigation measures masking and distancing. Now is a very different time. There are highly effective vaccines and treatments that protect most Americans from severe illness, and over 90 percent of the public have some level of immunity from or prior infection. In addition, scientists generally agree that Covid-19 is here to stay; Therefore, our strategy needs to shift to living with this disease.”

Acknowledging that her current policy recommendations “are very different from what they were in 2021 or 2020,” Dr. Wen said “they’ve evolved, as has the guidance from the CDC, which recently eased restrictions including to end quarantine for exposed individuals and no longer recommend distancing and cohorting in schools. The public’s view on COVID-19 has changed, too, which needs to be taken into account when formulating social recommendations.”

“None of this is easy,” Dr. Wen said. “There is no one ‘right’ answer, as there are tradeoffs of every intervention, as well as the cost of NOT pursuing any given course of action. These nuanced conversations take place every day, and are the kinds of respectful, thoughtful discussions I hope will occur at APHA and other academic settings.”

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