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'I just can't take it': Franklin County health director resigns after verbal assaults, death threats

In the letter, she said, "Resigning was not an easy decision for me, rather it was one I felt I had to make for my own safety and well-being."

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Mo. — Since the pandemic began, health directors across the country have been the target of violent threats.

It's leading to some resignations in our area.

Franklin County Health Department Director Angie Hittson called it quits recently, after working for the department for 14 years.

"The other day, Angie Hittson walked in my office and put a letter on the desk," Franklin County's Presiding Commissioner Tim Brinker said. "She goes I just can't take it."

"She says it's been a lot of threats and volatility from constituents and callers. She was tired of that environment given from her clients," Brinker told 5 On Your Side.

The letter shared her experience over the last several years.

In part, it talks about the daily verbal assaults, threats of violence, and death threats.

It also shares how Hittson was hoping to be the director until retirement.

She said this role has been an absolute honor and it was not an easy decision. But it was rather one that had to be done for her own safety and well-being.

Brinker said the tension has significantly increased due to COVID-19. 

The hostility is something he's seen firsthand.

"I certainly know what she's talking about," he said. 

And he's not the only one.

Last October, the St. Francois County Health Director resigned and factored threats and harassment into the decision.

In August, the Clinton County Illinois Health Department shared a Facebook post asking the community to tone down the hostility and aggression towards staff.

Nationwide, in a Kaiser Health News analysis, more than 180 state and local public health leaders have resigned, retired or been fired since April 1, 2020.

The analysis found, one in eight Americans, or about 40 million people, lives in a community that has lost its local public health department leader during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Acknowledging the intensity is St. Louis City's former health director Dr. Fredrick Echols. 

"It is very tense. A lot of this is very stressful position," he told 5 On Your Side's Abby Llorico. 

Lincoln County's Health Director, Brett Siefert, echoed the same message. 

"It's as much a mental and psychology exercise and it's grueling hours," he adds.

He's been with the department for 24 years and has been the administrator for 10 years.

Siefert said the job is hard and when you add fuel to the fire, it can be overwhelming.

"It's a little bit of killing the messenger. We want to do a public health job and our jobs have become political. At least in Missouri, with our state government turning on itself and local governments now, that's only added to that and it's completely unnecessary," Siefert said.

John Wagner, the head of the Monroe County Health Department in Illinois, believes the intense hours and the amount of stress added with COVID didn't help.

Wagner said health directors hear what the public wants, but at times, are required to do what the public needs.

Wagner said it takes about five years until an administrator can grasp the learning curve and the ability to navigate that role.

He believes, with the resignations, the region is losing leaders who have great expertise and knowledge of the position.

We're told many of these health directors and administrators became health officials to help.

"For a lot of people who work in local public health, they want to make a difference in people's lives," Siefert said. 

But unfortunately, some are resigning to help themselves.