Acton Tells Lessons She Learned from Pandemic

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Tough problems such as the world faced during the heart of the Covid-19 pandemic can be tackled only by collaboration, Dr. Amy Acton said Oct. 4.

The Youngstown native, who served as director of the Ohio Department of Health from early 2019 through the first few months of the pandemic, returned to the Mahoning Valley to speak as part of the Centofanti Symposium of Youngstown State University.

She has since become involved in projects involving preventive medicine and promoting community health. 

“Everyone [during the pandemic] had to lead based on the best information available and solve problems they’ve never had to solve before,” Acton told The Business Journal before her lecture.

The best leaders she saw were not only willing to show honesty, share their thoughts and feelings and ask more of one another, they also brought people to the table, including those who didn’t think as they did, she said.

“They would get the best experts in every field. We didn’t need just virologists and epidemiologists,” she said. Then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel brought in medical anthropologists, theologians and supply chain experts.

“We can only solve hard things not in our silos. We need to solve them together,” Acton said.

As she guided the state health department and informed the public during daily briefings that became appointment television during the pandemic, she drew on influences as diverse as Nazi concentration camp survivor and author Viktor Frankl, author Joseph Campbell and singer/songwriter Michael Stipe. 

The overarching lesson she learned during the pandemic was most Ohioans “tried to pull one another up,” a lesson she said would remain with her for the rest of her life.

“I saw the hate. I saw the polarization. But I saw a lot more love,” Acton said.

The title of her lecture – “The Leader We Wish We All Had Is YOU” – was a play on the headline of a May 2020 New York Times opinion piece that looked at how Ohio was “leading perhaps a bit differently” during the pandemic, Acton said. In the essay, the author discussed “the need for leadership that had certain qualities” – brutal honesty, vulnerability and empowerment.

“It was a very surprising analysis to me,” she recalled.

As the new Covid variants, respiratory syncytial virus and flu approach, no one “doesn’t wince at the times we’ve all been through and the polarization that continues in our country,” she continued.

But as she looks around Ohio, what she sees, as she saw at the start of the pandemic, is “people trying to pull one another up on the life raft” and recognizing that what harms others also harms them.

“There is a longing to get back to our communities, to our neighborhoods. We don’t live in ideologies,” she said. “We don’t live in political parties. We live in families and relationships and communities. And so I think there is a longing for how do we rebuild that moving forward? So this is really about health, healing and hope.”

Acton “really fits the groove” in terms of speaking to social concerns that are relevant to general wellness, said Joseph Mosca, director of the Centofanti Center. The center’s focus is addressing the health and welfare of vulnerable populations. 

“The whole purpose of the symposium is to bring the community together and to bring speakers who address issues that are very relevant social concerns,” Mosca said. “She’s very committed to health and wellness. She’s very committed to community health.” 

Acton described herself as “a very ordinary person [who] just happened to be in an extraordinary moment in history.”

Having a “pretty rough childhood” when she lived in nearly 20 places by age 12, as she told The Business Journal last year, she remembers the people who gave her and her brother lunch as they walked to school or brought them food because they knew the kids weren’t getting enough to eat at home.

From “the little kindnesses we do to one another [or] the respectful way we might treat someone in the grocery store line [to] actually seeing an injustice that we decide we want to participate in helping to correct, this is who we are as people,” she said. 

Acton also lamented the politicization of tools such as masks used to combat the spread of Covid-19 and other viruses. Earlier this year, U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, introduced legislation to establish a federal ban on mask mandates. She said she wouldn’t recommend that Vance do that but also urged people not to be intimidated by the word “mandate” and do what they can to stop the spread of disease.  

“We’ve all learned that a mask can be a useful tool the same way as Kleenex and washing your hands can be. It’s used by surgeons for a reason. If masks didn’t help to not spread disease, I’m sure we wouldn’t use them in our hospitals,” she said. “It’s unfortunate to politicize something that is just another tool in our arsenal.”

Among those tuning into Acton’s televised Covid briefings was Shannon Tirone, associate vice president and director of university relations at YSU. “Even when there were times where you would tune in – and there was nothing new to say – it was a constant reminder that somebody was watching and protecting,” she said.

Acton “never lost track of where she came from,” Tirone said.

The former Ohio health director reflected on becoming a part of popular culture because of the briefings,  her phrase “Wear your mask; wear your cape,” the memes and a “Laverne and Shirley” parody video featuring her and Gov. Mike DeWine. Children dressed as Acton for Halloween. A T-shirt maker also produced shirts featuring another phrase associated with Acton, “Not All Heroes Wear Capes.”  

“My favorite-ever picture that has always stayed with me,” she said, “was a chalk drawing on the ground on a driveway and a little girl is curled up and there’s a drawing of the big cape behind her.”

Pictured at top: Amy Acton, former director of the Ohio Health Department, came to YSU Oct. 4.