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COVID-19 in Maryland Government & Politics

Lawmakers Consider Bill to Ban Threats Against Health Officials, Hospital Workers

"Home of the Brave" sign outside of hospital
A sign outside of the University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center in La Plata honors health care workers. Photo by Angela Breck.

Washington County Health Officer Earl E. Stoner told lawmakers Tuesday that threats over his public health decisions led him to install a security system at his home — and said his child was harassed at school because of his role as health officer.

“The level of harassment and intimidation from some, obviously not all, but some members of the public during this pandemic has really been unprecedented,” Stoner told members of the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

Stoner was testifying in favor of House Bill 267, introduced by Del. Karen Lewis Young (D-Frederick), which would ban threats against public health officials and hospital workers who care for patients. The bill would make threats against those hospital workers and public health officials punishable by up to 90 days imprisonment and a $500 maximum fine.

Threatening an elected official is a misdemeanor punishable by up to three years in prison or a fine of up to $2,500 or both, but civil servants don’t have the same protection under state law.

Former Montgomery County Health Officer Travis Gayles, who resigned to take another job last year, faced racist and homophobic attacks over his public health decisions. Gayles testified in favor of the bill Tuesday and read from some emails he received when he was a public health official.

Gayles replaced obscenities in the emails with the word “blank,” and at times “blank blank blank…” made up most of the sentences.

“During the early stages of COVID, many of our efforts were celebrated and healthcare providers and workers were hailed as heroes,” Gayles said. “That tide began to turn as conversations about reopening were had, and opinions became extremely politically charged.”

Michael Sanderson, executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, noted that protecting public health officials is one of his association’s 2022 legislative priorities.

“Our legislative leadership, our elected officials at the public level, felt that protecting public officials needed to be on that list,” Sanderson said.

According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 23.4% of public health workers surveyed reported “feeling bullied, threatened or harassed” because of their work.

Joanne Ogaitis, a nurse, said threats against nurses were a problem well before the pandemic. She added that violence is generally underreported in healthcare settings.

“The frontline reports that aggression is hitting an all-time high due in large part to the pandemic,” Ogaitis said. “Traumatized healthcare workers want to leave the frontline, they don’t want to come back, and it’s further contributing to the workforce shortage. ”

Jane Krienke, a legislative analyst for the Maryland Hospital Association, said the state is facing a “staggering healthcare workforce crisis” with more than 3,900 nursing vacancies statewide — a 50% increase since August.

“Violence in the workplace takes a toll,” Krienke said. “It leads to higher staff turnover, absenteeism, deterioration of employee morale and burnout.”

The bill defines hospital staff members as those whose work involves the “personal care or medical treatment of patients,” and defines public health officials as people “employed by a State or local health department or agency.”

Krienke said the Maryland Hospital Association wants to see that definition expanded to include anyone employed by a hospital.

“Threats can occur against any hospital staff, not necessarily those just providing personal care or treatment,” Krienke said.

Del. Wanika B. Fisher (D-Prince George’s) said she supports the bill but said lawmakers should have additional conversations with state’s attorneys about ensuring the law is enforced.

“You don’t want to tell people they’re protected and they’re not,” Fisher said.

Del. Lauren C. Arikan (R-Harford and Baltimore counties) said she received death threats during her first session in the General Assembly but said “nothing ever came of it” after it was reported to law enforcement.

“I’m not sure what special protections we have, but I don’t feel that that’s true or really being implemented now for us,” Arikan said.

Del. Robin L. Grammer Jr. (R-Baltimore County) pushed back against the bill, and said he felt there was a “low bar” for what constitutes a threat under the bill.

“There’s a lot a person can do that can be, in a court of law, considered intimidating, interfering or impeding,” Grammer said before going on to charge that some health mandates had made people feel threatened.

Lewis Young said the bill is meant to give “flexibility for the worst-case scenarios.”

“I have a book here, a binder of stories from all over the country,” Lewis Young said. “This bill allows for some flexibility. I can tell you that half the stories include something more than harassment. Threats of death, not only to the healthcare worker, but their families.”

A similar bill to ban threats against public health officials was introduced during the 2021 legislative session but didn’t advance out of House or Senate committees.