Burned out by COVID-19, some local health officials are calling it quits

They oversee restaurant safety, air and water quality and even COVID vaccine clinics

HOPKINTON, Mass. — From vaccinating residents and ensuring our favorite restaurants are safe to make sure septic systems work properly and the air we breathe is clean, Massachusetts public health workers do a lot to keep us safe.

But as 25 Investigates found COVID-19 has more than doubled the workload and has taken a toll on these frontline workers. More than a year into the pandemic, some public health officials are calling it quits, while others are just trying to hang on.

Since the start of the lockdown in March 2020, Shaun McAuliffe, the public health director in Hopkinton, says he’s “worked all but about three weekends.”

McAuliffe is responsible for the well-being of 16,000 residents. While the pandemic continues to be his major focus, it’s just one of many duties McAuliffe has.

Drinking water quality, mosquito-borne illness, restaurants, camps, pools, beaches, funeral homes, cemeteries, trash trucks, nursing homes, septic systems, and even a slaughterhouse – all fall under the umbrella of the Hopkinton Health Department.

He previously worked in public health in Boston. McAuliffe thought Hopkinton would offer relief from the stresses and demands of the city.

“I came here and thought it was an opportunity for me to spend time with my own children, to really be there for my wife as her career was taking off. And then, you know, COVID hit,” he told 25 Investigates. “It’s introduced a lot of stress into the household just because of the demands of, you know, working 12 hours, 14 hours a day, sometimes.”

25 Investigates found that stress is not confined to Hopkinton.

In January, the city of Framingham announced that its public health director, Sam Wong, was taking a medical leave and is unlikely to return.

Wong led the city’s pandemic response. He had to monitor and enforce the state’s constantly changing COVID restrictions. “I’m physically, mentally, and even sometimes spiritually exhausted…it is to the point where I have to take a step back,” Wong told the MetroWest Daily at the time.

25 Investigates pored over municipal public health job openings and found listings in Framingham, Boston, Brookline, Winchester, Weston, Newton, Burlington, Reading, Wareham, Lexington, and Worcester.

“There’s a number of health director roles right now in the state that are vacant or will soon be vacant,” Tim McDonald, Needham’s Health and Human Service Director, and the Secretary of the Massachusetts Health Officers Association told 25 Investigates’ Ted Daniel.

He says COVID led to more work and public scrutiny. According to McDonald, his peers have received threats and hate mail and have even been berated for doing their jobs.

So why does it matter if a town or city has a public health vacancy?

McDonald says the most obvious example is food services safety and hygiene.

“We all want to make sure that a restaurant is safe and clean or not making us sick with foodborne illness.”

Public health workers also answer complaints about noise and odor. If your drinking water becomes contaminated, the boil water notice will come from your local health department.

“We’re the ones that are making sure that your septic systems and your wells are being installed properly. We’re in the last year of a three-year cycle of EEE [Eastern Equine Encephalitis] and we oversee the mosquito control programs in the community,” said McAuliffe.

Hopkinton’s high vaccination rate and the lifting of COVID restrictions have allowed McAuliffe to see a light at the end of the tunnel. But until the state makes it through the pandemic his only option is to keep his foot on the gas, he says.

Before the pandemic, there was already a shortage of qualified public health workers. According to Zip Recruiter, the average yearly salary for a public health director in Massachusetts is about $88,000 a year. McAuliffe says he pays for his salary with state grants.