COLUMBUS, Ohio – The health director who helped Ohio's Republican governor earn glowing reviews for his pandemic response resigned Thursday after a few polarizing months during which she became beloved for her soothing expertise and loathed — even threatened — for exercising her emergency powers.
Dr. Amy Acton played a highly public role in Ohio’s early and aggressive fight against the coronavirus, transcending the confines of the laboratory to appear daily on television screens during Gov. Mike DeWine's updates and issuing his administration's health orders.
“It’s true not all heroes wear capes,” DeWine said at the news briefing at which he made the announcement. “Some of them do, in fact, wear a white coat, and this particular hero’s white coat is embossed with the name Dr. Amy Acton.”
Acton also faced harsh and sometimes ugly pushback for her orders that closed businesses and kept people home for weeks, including lawsuits, a legislative effort to strip her of authority and protests outside her suburban Columbus home that included some people carrying guns.
Some demonstrations at the Statehouse featured signs bearing anti-Semitic messages. Acton is Jewish, and one lawmaker referenced her with an anti-Semitic slur. More recently, organizers of music festivals and restaurant owners sued her as the slow reopening unfolded.
The tactics used against Acton were not confined to Ohio, but the universal commendations from her peers contrasted perhaps more sharply than anywhere with the vitriol.
DeWine shook the state to attention March 4, when he announced at a briefing — with Acton by his side — that spectators would be banned from an international fitness festival whose visitors bring a lot of money to Columbus each year. The state had yet to confirm a single coronavirus case.
Within a week, and on the advice of Acton, a former public health professor and researcher, he became the first governor to shut down schools statewide.
Acton herself seized national headlines March 17 when she called off the state's presidential primary just hours before polls were to open, incensing critics who saw it as an overreaction.
Nearly three months later, the number of confirmed or probable coronavirus cases in the state has topped 40,000, a milestone reached the day of her resignation. An additional 69 deaths were reported Thursday, state officials said, bringing the total to 2,490.
It might have been worse without the early measures. Ohio — No. 7 among states in total population — ranks 19th in coronavirus deaths per 100,000 people and 35th in total virus cases per 100,000 people, according to an AP analysis of COVID Tracking Project data.
House Republicans had sought to restrict her authority just last month. DeWine defended her, saying his fellow Republicans should focus on increasing virus test availability, a $775 million budget deficit and reopening the economy.
“I will always believe and know that many lives were saved because of her wise advice,” DeWine said Thursday.
Democrats rushed to her defense, too, saying Republicans bullied her and turned their backs on her expert advice, and calling her departure “Ohio's loss.”
“Dr. Acton rose above the petty partisan politics that so often dominates Columbus, and she did it with uncommon grace, humility and professionalism,” David Pepper, the state Democratic Party chairman, said in an emailed statement. “She became the epitome of a public servant and leader and a role model to so many.”
Acton, who appeared with DeWine at Thursday's briefing, called her job leading the Ohio Department of Health the “honor of a lifetime.”
She plans to stay on as senior health adviser to DeWine, she said, and will focus on preparing for the next phase of the pandemic. Coronavirus cases are rising in nearly half the states.
Running the department, handling the pandemic and advising the governor were three jobs, she said, and she wanted to devote her efforts to one area. She also wants to spend more time with her family.
“Ohioans, you have saved lives. You’ve done this,” she said.
Lance Himes, who already served as interim health director and is currently the department's general counsel, will step back into the role until Acton's permanent replacement is named, DeWine said.
In other coronavirus-related news in Ohio:
Attorney General Dave Yost is moving to dismiss the misdemeanor criminal case against owners of a Cambridge restaurant that reopened while the state was still prohibiting in-person dining service.
The state’s policy “is better served by a civil injunction,” but that would be moot at this point, Yost said, as restaurants are now allowed to be open if they take certain health precautions.
The 1851 Center for Constitutional Law, which represented Vicki Brearley, owner of the National Road Diner, had previously sought the case’s dismissal, arguing that criminalizing conduct based only on the orders of the state health director was unconstitutional.
The center’s executive director, Maurice Thompson, said the state was “seeking to imprison a harmless woman for simply running her own restaurant.”
The Ohio House has passed four bills related to the pandemic and sent them to the Senate.
The measures, approved Tuesday, boost access to telemedicine, a method for delivering medical appointments remotely; permanently allow alcohol delivery and carryout begun during the coronavirus quarantine; add certain powers for pharmacists; and expand local and state COVID-19 reporting.
Legislative debate continues over how the spread of COVID-19 will be tracked. The Senate has sent to the House a bill laying out guidelines for contact tracing, an issue that has divided the two chambers.
Associated Press writer Kantele Franko and AP/Report for America reporter Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report. Amiri is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.