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Santa Cruz Health Officials Honored for Persevering in Covid Battle Against Tide of ‘Denialism’

Santa Cruz Health Officials Honored for Persevering in Covid Battle Against Tide of ‘Denialism’

Mimi Hall and Dr. Gail Newel, health director and health officer for Santa Cruz County, California, will receive PEN America’s 2021 PEN/Benenson Courage Award for soldiering forward in their work amid death threats and personal attacks. (Anna Maria Barry-Jester/KHN)

Two California public health officials who pressed forward with aggressive measures to contain covid-19 even while enduring death threats and harassment will be honored with the 2021 PEN/Benenson Courage Award from PEN America, the group announced Friday.

Mimi Hall and Dr. Gail Newel, health director and health officer, respectively, for Santa Cruz County, California, will be honored Tuesday at the PEN America Literary Gala in New York City. Newel was one of the first officials in the nation to institute a shelter-in-place order at the beginning of the pandemic, and under Hall and Newel, Santa Cruz has experienced some of the lowest covid case rates in the country, as well as one of the smallest gaps in vaccination by race or ethnicity.

“In a sea of denialism and pushback against credible science, Mimi Hall and Gail Newel are standard bearers for everyone who’s on the side of responsible public health messaging,” Suzanne Nossel, chief executive officer of PEN America, a nonprofit that advocates for freedom of expression, said in a statement.

Over the course of the pandemic, public health officers across the nation have become the face of local government authority. In turn, they have confronted rage and resentment from members of the public and become targets of loose-knit militia and white nationalist groups. Hall and Newel lived through such a scenario in Santa Cruz County, where legitimate debate over their covid-related public health orders devolved into vitriol and sinister intimidation.

Earlier this year, KHN profiled the women and their experiences in an online story, as well as an audio episode with “This American Life.” Both women soldiered on with their public health duties, even as their homes and families became targets of protest and violent threats and their daily routines morphed to incorporate security patrols and surveillance cameras.

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Local health officials have become the face of government authority as they work to stem the pandemic. That has made them targets for chilling threats from some of the same militia groups that stormed the U.S. Capitol. Santa Cruz leaders are among those whose daily routines now incorporate security patrols, surveillance cameras and, in some cases, firearms.

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“It’s not okay what’s happening now. I don’t think there’s any time other than now that I’ve actually been afraid for American democracy, and it’s highlighted and exacerbated by this assault on science and service,” Hall said in a statement. Both women said they are accepting the award on behalf of health officials across the country, many of whom risked losing their jobs if they spoke out.

In September, Hall tendered her resignation, joining more than 300 top public health officials who have resigned, retired or been fired during the pandemic, according to an ongoing KHN-AP analysis.

The PEN/Benenson Courage Award was created in 2015 to honor “exceptional acts of courage in the exercise of freedom of expression.” Previous winners include Darnella Frazier, the Minneapolis teenager who filmed the murder of George Floyd by a police officer; law professor and equal rights advocate Anita Hill; and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and LeeAnne Walters, two women who helped expose the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

This story was produced by KHN, which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation.