Tuscarawas County Health Commissioner Katie Seward is like many of her colleagues around the state and country. She's acted in the best interest of public health while taking steps to educate residents and listening to their concerns about restrictions in schools as classes begin again this fall. And, like many of her colleagues, she's faced a torrent of abuse and hate for her decisions. Here, in an open letter posted to the county's Facebook page last weekend, she talks about her job and what she's been through.
Tuscarawas County Community,
I was initially drawn to the field of public health for its intent to use science to improve the health of populations. Largely, public health is not controversial. Most people probably think that the Public Health Department is a place you go to get a septic permit or a birth certificate. In the public health world, there is a common saying: “When public health works, nothing happens.”
A year into the COVID-19 pandemic and everything about public health has now changed. As a community, we are all exhausted. Many people have heard conflicting public health messages from a variety of sources, and we are ALL ready to be done with masks, social distancing, quarantines, and anything else to do with COVID-19. However, the COVID-19 virus is not done with us. While the infection fatality rate may be low, COVID-19 has killed more Americans than every single war since World War I combined and has taken 260 people in our community.
Viruses, like the coronavirus, have the capacity to reproduce themselves over and over again so long as there are susceptible hosts, or people. At every stage of spread it gets harder and harder to stop.
As the Tuscarawas County Health Commissioner, appointed under the statutes of Chapter 3709 of the Ohio Revised Code, I have legal, ethical, and moral obligations to perform the duties assigned by the Board of Health under the State of Ohio’s Revised Code. Unfortunately, despite working diligently to uphold those obligations and always acting in good faith, I, like many of my colleagues across Ohio and the United States, have become an easy target for people’s frustrations. There is a rawness in the way people are behaving towards each other, towards healthcare and public health workers, and towards me, personally and professionally.
The COVID-19 response should never have become a red or blue issue. The COVID-19 virus has always been the enemy, and the United States its target. We must come together against this enemy and allow science to be our leader.
I have no playbook for the decisions I have faced, but I have always acted ethically and with the best interest of the Tuscarawas County community in mind.
As our children return to school this fall, stakes are higher than ever. We are now fighting a variant that is more contagious, affects children more frequently, and potentially has greater health consequences than the strains that have come before. I have heard from many very passionate community members regarding differing stances on mask and vaccine mandates in schools. I have been told to “do more” and pressured to “do less.”
Let me be clear. The Health Department and I will continue to provide the most up to date recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and the Ohio Department of Health, current data, and any other pertinent information to the school districts and public so that they may make the best decisions for their students, staff, and community. I have no authority over mask, vaccine and quarantine mandates and/or recommendations. However, I do have duties and responsibilities I am obligated to uphold under State of Ohio laws, such as isolating persons infected with a contagious disease and quarantining persons who are exposed to a communicable disease, if the disease is deemed quarantinable by the State of Ohio. The guidelines issued by the Ohio Department of Health regarding “who” is considered a close contact must be followed but were not set by our local Health Department or myself, personally.
After numerous discussions with school districts in our County, many did not feel they had the proper authority to exclude students from school who had not been officially ordered into quarantine by the Health Commissioner. I had hoped to just provide quarantine recommendations to contacts, but due to the difficult position that placed the schools in, I found it necessary to issue orders so that districts would have the needed documentation for exclusion.
It should be noted that per the Ohio Department of Health guidelines, if schools have mask mandates in place (regardless of vaccination status), strategies to maximize physical distancing, and documented COVID-19 policies, the risk of transmission is generally considered low, and despite positive COVID-19 cases, all classroom contacts without symptoms would be permitted to remain in the classroom and participate in extracurricular sports.
I understand and support the need to keep our children in the classroom. I appreciate and value the benefit of extracurricular activities. That is why I have communicated to Superintendents the best practices and recommendations outlined above. School districts may decide to choose to implement these policies and that would, in turn, reduce the number of persons required to be quarantined. I recognize that implementation of social distancing and mask mandates may not be a best fit for every district, but it must be acknowledged that the lack of those measures result in the need to contact trace and quarantine those identified as close contacts.
The Health Department relies heavily on our partnership with each school district to complete this task and we are so appreciative of the time and effort this takes. The orders provided to students after a known exposure are the obligation of the Health Department and a delegated responsibility of the Health Commissioner as outlined in Chapter 3707.08 and 3707.16 of the Ohio Revised Code. Please understand that placing students in quarantine is not an act of malice or retaliation against those who have chosen to remain unvaccinated or those who speak out against mask or vaccine mandates. Those are the guidelines I am required to follow. Simply put, it is my job.
Over the past year, I have been threatened and harassed, my character has been torn down. My personal life has been dissected, judged, and ridiculed. I have been labeled “the most hated woman in Tuscarawas County.”
Even still, I love public health, and I love Tuscarawas County. I came to the field of public health and the Tuscarawas community committed to applying my knowledge and training to save lives. I appreciate the passion of so many of our residents. I am NOT under any circumstance attempting to take away any personal freedoms or your right to decide what is best for you and your family on any health matter, but I am obligated to follow Ohio’s Revised Code.
As we continue to navigate these uncharted waters, I promise to continue making good faith decisions and responsibly act within the scope of my duties assigned under the laws of the State of Ohio.
With respect and sincerity,
Katie Seward, MPH, CHES, CTTS
Tuscarawas County Health Commissioner