Baltimore County health department employees are being harassed regularly as they try to perform their duties, according to the county’s top health official, who on Friday urged state lawmakers to pass legislation that would criminalize threats against public health employees.
“We’re being threatened, we’re being harassed and we’re being intimidated,” Baltimore County’s public health officer Dr. Gregory Branch told county representatives during a House delegation meeting Friday.
The legislation — sponsored by Del. Karen Lewis Young of Frederick County and several Democratic House and Senate lawmakers from Baltimore, Frederick, Montgomery and Prince George’s counties — would make it a misdemeanor to threaten public health employees and hospital staff members with the intent to intimidate or interfere with their ability to work.
Del. Susan McComas of Harford County — where the County Council in October ousted its top doctor with little explanation — is the legislation’s lone Republican sponsor.
Public health officials across the U.S. — including in Maryland — have faced hostility and threats throughout the pandemic as they’ve sought to enforce restrictions meant to curb the coronavirus’ spread.
In Baltimore County, Branch said that his role as public health officer and the head of social services and animal services “basically puts a target on my back.”
“I remove people’s children and I remove people’s animals,” he said. That’s invited harassment targeted at Branch and other public health officials.
For half a year, Branch said, a man whose child had been removed from his care stood outside the Drumcastle Government Center nearly every day, berating social workers and other employees coming to and leaving work and inviting others to participate in their harassment. He hung signs declaring Branch and other health officials were liars, scumbags, and a slew of expletives, naming individual social workers and declaring there was a “government conspiracy” afoot.
“They were outside of our building doing this on a constant basis to the point where my staff would not even exit or enter from that particular front door,” Branch said. The harassment stopped only after the man was found dead in his apartment, Branch said.
Branch also showed pictures of weapons — switchblades, scissors and a gun — that security at the Drumcastle building, which houses the county’s social services department, had confiscated in six months. Other weapons have been found hidden in areas outside the building, Branch said, showing a picture of a trench knife (a knife with brass knuckles for a handle) hidden in a drain on the building’s exterior.
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“This can be very, very, very, dangerous to our workers and our children,” he said. “These are the things that are happening to us.”
He also showed photos of the front and rear of his home, which had been vandalized with ketchup, mustard and eggs.
If the proposal is passed, those who threaten (either orally or written) health officials and hospital workers will be subject to up to 90 days imprisonment or liable to pay up to $500 in fines.
Maryland is one of 15 states that don’t have such protections for health officials, even as rates of assaults on and harassment of healthcare workers have shot up during the pandemic, Young, the Frederick County delegate, said during a virtual judiciary committee hearing on the legislation last week.
“We had a real issue with threats on healthcare workers even before the pandemic and the pandemic certainly exasperated it,” Young said. During a time when healthcare workers are in short supply — including in Baltimore County — strengthening their protections may help retain them, she added.
There are more than 3,900 nursing vacancies in the state; a 50% increase since August, according to the Maryland Hospital Association.
“At a time when we’re facing such a critical shortage in healthcare workers, we need to boost our attraction and our retention efforts,” Young said. “And one way to do it is to give them some kind of protection.”