Prominent doctor faces backlash amid ‘struggle at heart of public health’

More than 600 people in the public health field signed a letter to the association last month urging it to uninvite Dr. Leana Wen, professor of public health at George Washington University, CNN medical analyst, and columnist for the Washington Post.

The letter says Wen used his media and social media platform to promote unscientific and unethical ideas.

“We believe that APHA, as the leading and largest public health organization in the United States, has an obligation to consider the ways in which its platform as a leader in public health gives credence to its harmful messages,” the letter read.

“This is a fight at the heart of public health,” said Justin Feldman, a social epidemiologist and health and human rights researcher at the Harvard FXB Center for Health & Human Rights, who signed the letter.

Wen pivoted a year ago from defending pandemic mandates, such as mandatory masking and vaccines for travel, to plead since the beginning of this year for a return to normal life – even as Omicron traversed many parts of the country.

The growing backlash against it crystallizes an increasingly contentious public health debate. Critics say the pressure to abandon all pandemic mitigation measures is abandoning those most at risk of serious illness from COVID-19, including older Americans and those who are immunocompromised, as well as low-income people and some communities of color, who are less able to afford rapid home tests or miss work when infected.

But other public health officials argue that Wen’s current position is more in line with that of most Americans who have moved on, avoiding masks and resuming many of their pre-pandemic activities. They say his positions on masking and easing other pandemic precautions are similar to current guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci generally echoes CDC guidelines, but he has encouraged mask-wearing in recent media interviews, telling ABC News in July that “you can always protect yourself very well with a properly adjusted and adequate device”. mask.”

Wen, who ironically is due to speak on “Harassment, Intimidation, and Death Threats: Staying the Course in the Event of an Attack” at the Boston conference, has faced considerable criticism and threats to his top positions. level. A Texas man was recently sentenced to six months in prison for threatening Wen last year over his defense of COVID vaccines, while a Massachusetts man was charged last month with allegedly emailing threatening to Wen at her home in Maryland. She is married and has two young children aged 2 and 5.

“There are negative reactions from all sides,” Wen said in an interview.

She said her views on strict COVID precautions began to shift in early 2021, after vaccines began to become more widely available, and in February this year, when so many people had been infected with the Omicron variant, it had become “very obvious to me”. that COVID is here to stay and elimination is unfortunately no longer on the table.

In a recent Washington Post column, Wen said her kids won’t be wearing masks this school year and that she accepts the risk that they might get COVID-19 “just like they might get the flu.” But she acknowledged that some families can maintain strict precautions, while others can find a balance, and that “there are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers.”

In an interview, she said that instead of reinstating mask mandates, federal leaders should instead devote valuable public health capital to other pressing issues, such as vaccinating children against polio amid signs of a resurgence in New York.

“I worry if we tell people we need masking when most Americans don’t…we’re going to lose them in the bigger scheme of things,” she said.

But for some who signed the letter against Wen, that logic doesn’t hold.

“The role of public health is to tell people it’s not over,” said Natasha Sokol, an assistant professor at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School, who studies how social factors influence health and disease.

“The less we do to try to prevent [COVID]the longer it goes on the worse it will get,” she said.

Other health leaders who did not sign the letter took to Twitter to voice assistance for Wen, including Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, who called his views “based on good intentions and rational facts.” Dr. Jeffrey Flier, former dean of Harvard Medical School, called the initiative to cancel Wen “absurd and disturbing”.

Arthur Caplan, director of medical ethics at New York University’s Grossman School of Medicine, finds common ground. He disagreed with many of Wen’s points, but said calls to quash it are misguided because frank discussion of the issues is important.

“People don’t like to wear seatbelts, but they wear seatbelts,” he said. “Public health has not historically been built on opinion polls or what people want to do.”

He said the backlash against Wen is the culmination of anger over what he sees as a failure by federal public health leaders to communicate clear and consistent information during the pandemic.

“She just happened to become the flashpoint,” he said.

A recent Annenberg Public Policy Center poll suggests that many Americans are more in tune with Wen’s thinking. He found that while most people know at least one person who has died from COVID, and many know someone who has had a long COVID, a majority of Americans (54%) say they rarely or never wear a mask. indoors with people outside their household – more than double the proportion in January. And 41% say they have already returned to their “normal, pre-Covid-19 life” – up from 16% in January.

Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association, said Wen, who is not being paid for her appearance, will not be waived.

“Our position is that Dr. Wen has been in the mainstream of scientific thinking on public health,” he said. “I understand there are people who may disagree with that.”

And he added: “Let’s have a conversation about the issue and not the individual.”

About 10,000 people are expected to attend the conference, he said. And while indoor mask mandates are rare now, the association will be requiring indoor masks at the conference, at the urging of many members.

Sokol, of Brown University, said she likely wouldn’t attend, not because of her objection to Wen, but because of her concern that such a large gathering could seed many more COVID infections. . She said growing debates about how to live with COVID have left her adrift.

“I’ve been in public health my entire career, and seeing all the institutions I’ve always sought to take their advice away from public health is totally disorienting,” she said. “It’s hard to know where to go from here.”


Kay Lazar can be reached at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.

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