LIBERTY TOWNSHIP, Ohio – Dr. Amy Acton said she would like to see a panel similar to the 911 Commission created following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks put in place to study the response during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Youngstown native and physician, who now lives in Bexley, reflected on her time as director of the Ohio Department of Health in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic during the Rotary Club of Youngstown’s annual anniversary party Thursday evening.
“We need to put the honest truth of what went right and what went wrong on the table, and then we need to redesign it,” Acton told the assembled Rotarians and their guests.
Having filled most of the cabinet posts in his new administration in 2019, Gov. Mike DeWine had not yet hired a director for the state health department. One of his top advisers recommended he meet with Acton.
So excited while speaking with DeWine about various projects during that meeting, Acton reached out and grabbed him by the arm – then, realizing what she had done, froze.
“Everyone just stood there and looked, and I remember thinking, ‘They definitely don’t want to put me in front of a camera,’” she recalled.
Acton acknowledged she had a “pretty rough childhood,” having lived in probably 18 different places by age 12 – during one winter she lived in a tent – until being removed from that situation. She attended Liberty schools in seventh grade. Wanting to be a doctor since she was “a little kid,” she attended Youngstown State University before moving on to what is now known as Northeast Ohio Medical University.
“The problem with the work of public health is when you knock it out of the park, when you do everything right, it’s a silent victory. You don’t see it and therefore you don’t fund it, even though we know $1 spent saves $14,” Acton said.
Even before the pandemic, DeWine was concerned because Ohio had “some of the worst health outcomes … but that is not a politically expedient topic as we’ve since learned,” Acton said. During the first year of the administration, the state addressed tobacco use, vaping, lead poisoning and “a huge Legionella outbreak,” she said.
On the last day of December 2019, she “heard a World Health Organization epidemiologist with a special little nervousness in her voice” discussing a “strange phenomenon in Wuhan.”
In the earliest days of the COVID pandemic, daily briefings with Acton, Gov. DeWine, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and others became appointment viewing for Ohioans, many of whom were sheltering in place at home because they were working remotely or their workplaces were shut down because of the pandemic.
“Our goal in the beginning was that no order can make people keep people safe. You can’t mandate your way out of a pandemic,” she said. “The real goal was to give people the rules to live by, buy time just long enough to be able to get control over the virus.”
Acton’s demeanor and the way she talked to people during the briefings “gave us hope,” said Erin Bishop, health commissioner for the city of Youngstown.
“From Day One, we always just looked up to her and I kind of got my guidance from her and the governor when they would be on TV every day,” she said. “At times when we didn’t know what was going on, she always just kind of put our mind at ease, and just gave us what we needed to do to get through this pandemic.”
Samantha Turner, whose one-year term as Youngstown Rotary’s president started in July 2020, also navigated the pandemic in her first term on Youngstown City Council and as the mother of a toddler. The third ward councilwoman was among those who regularly tuned in for the daily briefings – often referred to as “Wine with DeWine” or “Snackin’ with Acton” – and posted accounts of the briefings on her Facebook page.
“It was great to see a woman leader. It was even better that she was from Youngstown, and a North sider as well, telling us what needed to be done and doing it in the most sincere way,” Turner said. That leadership was inspiring to her as “a woman leading a club of professionals who we are all fearful of what we can do and not put other people at risk,” and gave her the confidence to resume meeting in person following the state guidelines, she said.
“We know for crisis communications you want to be clear, concise, consistent and credible, but we did something different,” with the communications forming more of a relationship, Acton said. “What you saw us do there literally was me talking to patients or me being a mom … and I think that made a difference.”
Acton also recommended bringing different people to the table. Then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel surrounded herself with theologians, philosophers, social scientists, business people and the military, as well as medical personnel.
The daily briefings resulted in Amy Acton fan groups being formed on Facebook, children dressing as the ODH director for Halloween and even a bobblehead of her being manufactured. At the same time, she became to critics a symbol of the public health measures enacted.
That prompted some of those critics to protest outside her house – some of them armed, which required security measures to be put in place.
Acton acknowledged her natural response would have been to go outside to talk to the protestors, but when “someone has a gun, you can’t,” she said.
“There were people legitimately protesting. This is a huge deal. People were losing businesses,” she said.
Anti-Semitic comments were directed at Acton, who is Jewish. The first protests at the Ohio Statehouse took place after she talked about matzo ball soup. Prior to that point, critics “had been looking for a way to demonize” her and hadn’t found much, she said.
Acton stepped down from ODH in June 2020, though she stayed on as an adviser to DeWine for a time after that. Serving her fellow Ohioans was “the honor of a lifetime,” she said.
Acton said she became acquainted with Rotary when she was a student at Liberty High School, where she won a Rotary-sponsored speech contest.
“In many ways, Rotary’s mission is very similar to the mission I have in public health,” she reflected. “It really is about health and well being globally and locally. It is about maternal and child health, and disease prevention and the environment. And those are all the fundamentals of public health.”
Youngstown Rotary presented Acton with a Paul Harris Fellow for her work during the pandemic – one of three awards presented Thursday night.
The award named after Paul Harris, who founded Rotary in 1915, is typically given to someone who has contributed $1,000 to the Rotary Foundation or it was given on behalf of someone. But Youngstown Rotary also presents one each year to someone in or from the community who has given back to the community and exemplifies Rotary’s motto, “Service Above Self,” said Josh Prest, 2021-2022 club president.
“It really was a really quick decision, once Dr. Acton’s name came up,” Prest said, citing Acton’s role in guiding Ohio during the pandemic. During the daily briefings with DeWine, Husted and Acton, Ohioans “knew that they were going to get the truth and get updates, and they were going to be okay,” he added.
Paul Harris Fellows also were presented to Youngstown Rotarians Adam Lee and Mike Latessa.
Since leaving ODH, Acton said she has done “a teeny bit of public speaking,” mostly with college students. She is reflecting on what she wants to do next and is close to a decision. She has had some “exciting offers,” including one in Washington, D.C., but stressed she wants to stay in Oho.
“Once you have 11.7 million patients, you don’t stop worrying about them,” she remarked. She eventually plans to write a book about her experiences and feels like she has “one last big thing” before that. “And then I hope to write and teach,” she said.
Acton also said that people might be done with COVID-19 but it “may not be done with us.” The good news is that people are resilient and there are tools available to address it.
“We really saw the worst of it this winter, but we’ve learned,” she said. “This is another phase of the virus and our leaders need to walk us out of it. We need to narrate what’s happening and keep telling people what to expect, and we all need grace and mercy.”
Pictured at top: Dr. Amy Acton addresses those gathered at the Rotary Club of Youngstown’s annual anniversary party.
Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.