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Missouri public health official abused by hostile crowd over support for mask mandate

The frustration over masking mandates that has been playing out around the country erupted in Missouri Tuesday night during a county council meeting that focused on the new mask mandates issued just the day before. Dr. Faisal Khan, the acting director of the St Louis County Health Department called to testify during that meeting, faced racial slurs, verbal attacks and even physical intimidation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And the rise in COVID cases has been happening, we know, in every state, but in several states, and a couple of regions in particular, the surge has been especially painful.

    That includes Missouri, where there's been much discussion and debate about how to respond.

    Amna Nawaz looks at that part of the story.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The confusion and frustration over masking mandates that have frequently played out around the country erupted in St. Louis County on Tuesday night.

    Tensions boiled over during a county council meeting that focused on whether to roll back new mask mandates. Just the day before, a masked mandate was issued requiring them for everyone over the age of 5.

    Now, the public health official call to testify during that meeting faced racial slurs, verbal attacks, and he said even physical intimidation as he was getting ready to leave.

    Dr. Faisal Khan is the acting director of the St. Louis County Health Department who testified. And he joins me now.

    Dr. Khan, welcome to the "NewsHour." And thank you for making the time.

    Give me a sense of what it was like in that room that night when you walked into the council meeting to talk about why you think a new mask mandate is recommended. What was it like in the room?

  • Dr. Faisal Khan:

    Thank you, Amna.

    As a public official, it is my responsibility to respond and show up and answer questions posed by the legislative branch and elected officials whenever summoned.

    And so I went to the meeting with the facts and the information pertaining to the rationale and the urgency behind the public health ordered issue recently.

    And so, when I walked into the room, I noticed a growing crowd with a palpable sense of unease and anger that was seemingly boiling over.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And tell me a little bit about how that message went over. As you talked about the need for a mandate, what was the case you were making? What have you seen on the ground there that tells you a mask mandate is necessary now?

  • Dr. Faisal Khan:

    So, all indications are that the community transmission of the Delta variant is at an all-time high in Missouri.

    We are now showing up as a bright red hot spot in the heat map of the region, along with the states of Arkansas, Mississippi, and Louisiana. The crisis that erupted related to the Delta variant in Southwest Missouri has made its way to the St. Louis region.

    And so we were trying to be proactive and act in as efficient and as rapid a manner in imposing a mask mandate to try to stem off the same sort of situation that our colleagues in Southwest Missouri would have experienced.

    I fear now that, with increasing hospitalizations and increasing pediatric hospitalizations, we will see some of the worst-case scenarios play out over late summer and early fall.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You have said that you were berated during your testimony. You were pushed as you were leaving. You faced absolutely unacceptable racial slurs directed at you as well.

    But I watched some of the hearing. There's clearly a growing sense of frustration among people who don't think that they're getting straight guidance or feel they're getting shifting guidance from health officials such as yourself.

    Have you ever seen this level of frustration among people in receiving that kind of public health information?

  • Dr. Faisal Khan:

    No, not in my experience.

    However, I will say that it is perfectly understandable that people are angry, people are frustrated, and they're very worried about what might come next. They're worried sick about child care issues and jobs and being able to return to some semblance of normality.

    And their frustration, in some part, stems from the changing and evolving public health guidance from November last year to May this year to July now with this public health order. And our answer to that is, look, we are not the enemy. The virus is the enemy.

    And so, faced with this vicious enemy on this battlefield, if I may state it that way, it is changing tactics. It is deploying new weapons in the form of variants. And our responsibility is to be nimble enough to adapt our strategy and tactics to counter it.

    And so when we reassure the public and issue new guidance, it is only intended to counter the existing threat that has emerged most recently.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, cases are rising in your county, as they are in a number of counties across the country. People are clearly frustrated. Many don't want to go back to mask mandates.

    What do you, as a public health official, do now?

  • Dr. Faisal Khan:

    So, our request of people is, listen, it does not matter whether we debate the semantics of, is this a mask advisory, or is it a mandate?

    Just wear a mask if you're going to be indoors with lots of people, please, especially in public places. Please consider getting a vaccine, of course, for yourself, as well as all your loved ones and all your neighbors.

    But, please, listen to prudent public health advice, because this virus will not respect your civil rights or your notions of independence. This will not respect boundaries of city, state or county. We cannot simply will this virus away. It will cause more misery and death.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We should point out that other elected officials in your county oppose this mandate. And there's still some confusion over whether or not there is actually a mandate in place in your county right now or not.

    What do you think will happen? What do you think the next several weeks, few months could look like in your specific county that you serve?

  • Dr. Faisal Khan:

    So, once again, regardless of what people's opinions may be, or whether they choose to wrangle this in court, et cetera, it really does not matter.

    The public health urgency is to get everybody to wear a mask. Whether they want to consider it a mandate or whether they want to consider it an advisory is up — entirely up to them. It really does not matter.

    From our perspective in public health, we respect everyone. We serve everyone. The virus doesn't discriminate, and neither do we.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Khan, finally, I should say the assaults that you face, the vitriol you face, that's not unique to you as a public health official. We have heard that from people across the country.

    Are you in any way worried about your safety or your family's safety right now?

  • Dr. Faisal Khan:

    So, I'm not unique in that list, as you have mentioned.

    My idol in public health. Dr. Anthony Fauci, the great man himself, has received a lot more vile abuse directed his way. And so I count myself fortunate in that I'm able to work in public health and serve people.

    It is highly regrettable that it's come to this situation, and the fact that I have had to request additional security for myself. I'm not the least bit worried, nor am I going to walk away from the mission of public health. Dr. Fauci inspires me every day with his example.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Dr. Khan, we hope you and your family stay safe, and we thank you for making good time to be with us tonight.

    That's Dr. Faisal Khan, acting director of St. Louis County Department of Public Health.

    Thank you again.

  • Dr. Faisal Khan:

    Thank you.

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