Commentary: The measured, rational, compassionate response of Ohio’s Public Health director is a gift in chaotic times

By Anne Trubek

To the surprise of almost everybody, the state of Ohio has led most of the nation in its response to the new Coronavirus. Republican Governor Mike DeWine took early precautionary measures and continues to do so. We were the first state to close down all public and private schools, and one of the first to insist on social distancing, close restaurants and bars, and delay a primary election. We were told to flatten the curve early and often.

Every afternoon, usually at two o’clock, the Governor holds a press conference with updates on the latest confirmed cases and steps the state is implementing to help prevent further spread. These daily briefings have become, for me and for many others, the new way we schedule our days. I turn on WCPN, our local NPR affiliate, which always airs the press conference. While listening, I cook or follow reporters on twitter who are at the briefing. The press conferences soothe me.

What explains this unlikely situation? This measured, rational, compassionate response to an unprecedented disaster, this calming daily ritual that assures me and many others that people are handling a chaotic situation with knowledge, expertise, and empathy? My answer, and that of many others I know, is Dr. Amy Acton.

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Dr. Acton is director of Ohio’s Department of Public Health. She is the star of our Ohio afternoons, teaching us about the virus, community spread, social distancing, hospital beds, and the projected curve of confirmed cases. She is an exemplary teacher: she walks reporters and the public through complicated medical issues. She is never panicked, and always in control.

Mike DeWine listens to Dr. Acton. He clearly listens to her suggestions every day before he makes decisions for the state, and then implements them. At the press briefings, he often gives the microphone to her to handle questions from the press. This partnership between DeWine and Acton is solid and gentle and clear, and it alone sometimes causes me to tear up while listening.  

Acton, fifty-four, is an extraordinary medical professional and public servant. And, from what I gather, an exemplary woman as well. Hired in February of 2019 to lead Ohio’s public health department, Acton has a backstory almost too hardscrabble and bootstrappy to believe. She was born in Youngstown, Ohio, and as a child suffered from extreme poverty. She lived in a tent one winter when the family was homeless. Her family moved twelve times in eighteen years.

She made her way, graduating from Northeast Ohio Medical University. Before she was tapped for her current job, she was director of the public health-focused Columbus Foundation. She lives in Bexley, a suburb of Columbus. She has six children, and her husband is a public school teacher. 

Acton’s biography I gathered from online sources, but much of it I already knew. When she first started doing press conferences, she said hi to the students in Bexley schools, who were tuned in as well. When school closings were announced she talked about her husband, and the necessary difficulties he and his students were about to undergo. When San Francisco made its shelter in place order, she choked up describing the measure, which Ohio had not yet taken, but would soon. “My boys are there,” she told us. She has two sons, both in their twenties, living in San Francisco, and she told us about her emotional response, as a mother, to their changed circumstances. When asked a question about self-quarantining by a reporter earlier this week, Acton responded by sharing her fantasy of being herself forced to quarantine somewhere tropical, by a beach.

Ohio’s executive branch deserves praise for how it is currently handling the crisis, and DeWine has been an excellent public servant for Ohioans throughout March. I have no idea what percentage of the praise goes to him, his decision to step aside from the microphone and let Acton speak, and to adopt her suggestions, or to Acton herself. But this dynamic, playing out every afternoon on my radio, in this state’s unpredictable version of Roosevelt’s depression-era fireside chat, is one to appreciate. Here’s to Dr. Acton: may she rest somewhere tropical, by a beach—and healthy—soon. 



Anne Trubek is the founder and publisher of Belt Publishing, and was the founding editor of Belt Magazine.

Cover image by the Ohio Department of Health on Twitter.

*Opinion and commentary columns are the work of their authors, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Belt Magazine or its parent organization, Belt Media Collaborative.

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