The Provocateurs Cohort (Indiana)
Eileen White resigned from her position as the sole epidemiologist in the newly-formed Fishers, Indiana health department after the mayor began interfering with how data was being represented to the public.
“It became clear that no matter what I did to help make data more transparent for my community, I simply could not honestly communicate about the data when working in local public health in Indiana, amidst a huge amount of political pressure.”
“It went very public very quickly and was incredibly uncomfortable,” Eileen said.
Eileen became a reluctant, though much-needed voice for reason and transparency, challenging the misleading information being put out by her local officials, especially when that misleading data related to schools and school safety during COVID-19.
Eileen wanted to adhere to the Harvard Key Metrics for Covid Suppression that had just been released for community risk mitigation.
“We developed community metrics to help guide our community health around risk and school closings and openings,” she explained. “The metrics said we were in one stage, and the mayor decided that we were in another and told the schools to open fully when that’s not what the metrics indicated.”
So she left a health department she had uprooted her life to assist.
She created “Public Health Is Your Job, Too” as both a website and Facebook resource for those looking to better understand COVID-19 in her state, and to advocate for science communication and public health.
She received threats. Her neighbors shunned her. Several times, she’d go outside and find her car doors left opened or ajar.
In the end, she had to move.
Eileen was by no means a public figure before she left the health department – she averaged about one tweet a month before she quit in protest of the local government’s political interference in science and medicine. After she resigned, she started a Facebook page to share public health data with the public.
Eileen wanted to adhere to the guidelines on reopening schools, but the mayor didn’t. She wanted communication about the risk of schools to be clear, but the mayor didn’t. And when push came to shove, her own health department wouldn’t back her up against the political interests trying to minimize the impact their policy decisions would cause.
“There are many of us that have felt powerless, silenced. The data may indicate one thing. The policy decisions that are made at the top by the politicians and even some of the directors do not follow data,” Eileen remembers.
“We have to be careful to say what we know and don’t know and why. What we know about kids is still under investigation, everything so far indicates they spread at least as much as adults,” she wrote.
Indeed, Mayor Scott Fadness made unilateral changes to the policies regarding reopening school, reminding the health department during one public meeting that it wasn’t up to the health department when and how schools opened.
“I did my best to hold the local and state health departments accountable for decision making and poor data interpretation , and held our state accountable for the absolute gutting of public health funding and investment in Indiana,” she said.”
Still somewhat shaken from the near-constant assault of her work and her personal life, led by anti-maskers, anti-lockdowners and “open schools NOW” pushers, Eileen looks forward to what’s next for her, even if it isn’t where she expected life to take her.
“It’s been a very long year, but I take heart that my work in data and public health education have informed Fishers, Indianapolis and surrounding areas on how to look at the information they are being given, how to ask questions, and how to challenge a political narrative that is very clearly without real, solid, vetted data behind it.”
Eileen graciously requested not to be considered a finalist, noting on her Facebook page: “I have been a strong advocate for science, data and my community, but I have gone nowhere near the levels of work of my co-nominees. These amazing folks are doing incredible work, and I hope that their careers are improved with this honor and well-deserved attention.”
Eileen’s commitment to science education under immense pressure and even threats exemplifies everything this awards program is about. Still somewhat uncomfortable with her new-founded celebrity and trying to work her way through the emotional toll of her experiences, Eileen struggles to be brave. Yet, those who do not struggle to be brave are not nearly as heroic as those who must fight each day to find it within themselves to go on.
Even though Eileen may not (yet) be a national figure like some of other nominees, she shares the stage with equal credibility, transparency, advocacy, and grit as everyone else.
Our program was designed not to give praise to those who already have the lectern, but to recognize those whose work within their communities, states or regions across the US and Canada profoundly changed conversations, challenged misinformation, and who paid a price in doing so.