Ohio health director Amy Acton unexpectedly resigns amid coronavirus pandemic

Randy Ludlow, Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Turning down pleas from Gov. Mike DeWine to stay on the job, Dr. Amy Acton unexpectedly resigned Thursday as director of the Ohio Department of Health amid the coronavirus pandemic.

DeWine said Acton’s resignation was effective Thursday, although she now will become his chief health adviser.

“It is difficult for me to put in words how grateful I am for Dr. Acton’s service to the state,” he said.

The governor said he has asked Acton, who was appointed health director Feb. 26, 2019, to “take a big picture look” at improving public health while still working to address the pandemic.

Ohio Department of Health director Dr. Amy Acton at a coronavirus news conference Saturday, March 14, 2020 at the Ohio Statehouse. Behind her is Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (left) and Secretary of State Frank LaRose.
Ohio Department of Health director Dr. Amy Acton at a coronavirus news conference Saturday, March 14, 2020 at the Ohio Statehouse. Behind her is Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (left) and Secretary of State Frank LaRose.

Acton became both a beloved and polarizing figure to Ohioans for her candid, personal assessments at televised news briefings and for orders closing down parts of the state’s economy, some of which some Ohioans found excessive.

On Thursday, Acton quickly recounted her tenure, praising local health officials, members of her team and those on the front lines battling the pandemic. She also thanked her family, the governor — and the highway patrol protective detail assigned to her after threats.

“It is my honor to continue to work for you,” Acton said. “I am more determined than ever."

“Her knowledge, compassion, and determination have set an example for all of us, and Dr. Acton’s extraordinary bedside manner and wise counsel have helped us all get through this pandemic,” DeWine said. He praised her “extraordinary bedside manner.”

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Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine makes a point, as State Health Director Dr. Amy Acton looks on, at a mid-March coronavirus briefing.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine makes a point, as State Health Director Dr. Amy Acton looks on, at a mid-March coronavirus briefing.

Asked what made her resign, Acton’s audio feed went silent for several seconds. The audio returned with Acton saying that she now will have time to spend with her family, whose home has attracted protesters.

Asked whether pressure from protests against her health orders and attempts by lawmakers to strip her powers prompted her to walk away, Acton said, “A lot of that was not my focus.”

Acton said she had been struggling with offering her resignation over the past couple of months, suggesting it took a personal toll. She talked of “kind of a shift” as the pandemic eases, making it a “good time” to leave.

State Rep. Nino Vitale, R-Urbana, an opponent of closing down Ohio during the pandemic, was gleeful over Acton’s departure.

“I am hearing she is still on the tax payer dime but Actin’ Acton has resigned as Health Director. I say NOT good enough! 1 down, 2 to go of the Terrible Tyrannical Trio!” he wrote on his Facebook page.

Lance Himes, chief lawyer for the Ohio Department of Health, will become interim health director, DeWine said. Himes once held the same role under then-Gov. John Kasich.

Numbers improving in Ohio

Meanwhile, despite fears of outbreaks as Ohio has reopened for business over the past several weeks, cases of the potentially deadly infection have fallen by one-third from early May.

Ohio averaged 605 new cases a day from May 1-10, a figure that fell 33% to 407 new daily infections over the first 10 days of June, according to a Dispatch analysis of state health department figures.

The number of confirmed and probable cases decreased even as COVID-19 testing increased — although far short of the level state officials had planned as key to helping check the spread of the virus.

Testing for the virus increased 58% from an average of 7,002 a day in early May to 11,098 a day this month, through June 10.

DeWine said Thursday that after previously prioritizing virus tests for first responders, health care workers and those with symptoms, “anyone who wants a test in the state of Ohio now can get a test.”

“We are still working to expand testing,” DeWine said, adding that tests are available at pharmacies, community health centers and a number of other locations to anyone, with symptoms or not.

“We’re making progress.” DeWine said, pointing out that free testing was being made available in minority neighborhoods, including in Columbus. The state is posting testing locations online.

After stay-at-home orders closed nonessential businesses and isolated Ohioans beginning March 23, DeWine and Acton began lifting restrictions May 4.

General offices and other businesses were allowed to reopen that day with 6-foot social distancing and other virus precautions, followed by retail stores May 12 and other businesses and venues as the month went on.

Both DeWine and Acton expressed fears of a rebound of infections as more people interacted. But the reopening has not been accompanied — to this point — by a spike in cases.

A caveat: Virus symptoms in some people do not appear for up to two weeks after infection. DeWine also is concerned that the mass protests against police brutality and racism could spread coronavirus.

“Ohio’s economy has safety and gradually reopened ... we have some good momentum going. People are going back to work,” Lt. Gov. Jon Husted said.

Ohioans have filed an unprecedented 1.3 million unemployment benefits applications, but many are returning to work, Husted said.

Reach reporter Randy Ludlow via email (rludlow@dispatch.com) or on Twitter (@RandyLudlow)

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Amy Acton: Ohio health director resigns amid coronavirus pandemic