YOUNGSTOWN, 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 pandemic.
The Youngstown native and physician, who lives in Bexley, reflected on her time as director of the Ohio Department of Health in the early months of COVID-19. She made her remarks March 11 at the Rotary Club of Youngstown anniversary party at Youngstown Country Club.
“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 said.
In 2019, having filled most of the cabinet posts in his new administration, Gov. Mike DeWine had not yet hired a director for the state health department. One of his top advisers recommended he meet with Acton.
She was so excited while speaking with DeWine about various projects during that meeting, Acton reached out and grabbed him by the arm – then 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 said 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 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.
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 his 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 pandemic, daily briefings with Acton, Gov. DeWine, Lt. Gov. Jon Husted and others – posted online and carried live on TV stations – became appointment viewing for Ohioans.
“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.
“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.”
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 protesters. 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. The first protests at the Ohio Statehouse took place after she talked about matzo ball soup. Before 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 short time. 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.
The award – named after the man who founded Rotary in 1915 – is typically given to someone who has contributed $1,000 to the Rotary Foundation or on behalf of someone. Youngstown Rotary also presents one award each year to someone from the community who exemplifies Rotary’s motto, “Service Above Self,” said Josh Prest, club president.
“It was a quick decision, once Dr. Acton’s name came up,” Prest said. 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.”
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 Ohio.
“Once you have 11.7 million patients, you don’t stop worrying about them,” she remarked.
Acton plans to write a book about her experiences and feels she has “one last big thing” before that. “Then I hope to write and teach,” she said.
Acton also advised 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, she said.
“We 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: Acton addresses the Youngstown Rotary Club’s annual anniversary party.