YOUNGSTOWN — Dr. Amy Acton is well aware of the untold grief and despair caused by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but her cure for dealing with it has always consisted of four “Cs” and a “K” — communicate and be clear, concise, credible and friendly.
“It is not a mandate; it’s what Ohioans do to pull each other up,” Acton, a former director of the Ohio Department of Health, said, referring to how many people have moved beyond themselves since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Acton, whom many Ohio residents remember for her reassuring and compassionate voice of direction and guidance during the height of the health crisis, spoke Sunday at Youngstown’s Jewish Community Center, 505 Gypsy Lane, on the north side. She shared many of her experiences before, during, and after her role as an adviser to Governor Mike DeWine in the early days of the pandemic, when he gave daily briefings about it from the Statehouse.
Her hour-long, sold-out presentation likely continued to resonate with the estimated 165 in attendance, as she grew up on the North Side before moving to Liberty in seventh grade and attending Liberty High School, where she was a member of the National Honor Society and came home queen.
Acton, who lives in Bexley, described her: “rough youth” that meant moving constantly for 12 years and dealing with her parents’ divorce and her mother’s illness, as well as being homeless, living in a tent and scarce food.
Despite these and other hardships, Acton attended Youngstown State University, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree before earning a medical degree from Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine (now Northeast Ohio Medical University) in Rootstown in 1990, then a master’s degree. from The Ohio State University in public health. She also completed residencies at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City and Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.
Acton, who said she never read from a script, told her audience she was always trying to be “mercilessly honest” in regards to spreading information about how the pandemic unfolded. That included helping draft what some considered unpopular moves, such as advising DeWine on restraining orders.
DeWine was the first governor to close schools and limit gatherings to 100 people or fewer — even though the state had only three confirmed cases of coronavirus at the time, Acton recalled. Ohio was also the first state to temporarily close bars and restaurants with fewer than 40 confirmed cases.
In addition, she argued for the postponement of Ohio’s 2020 Democratic presidential primaries, scheduled for March 17, 2020. The day before, DeWine canceled the election before a judge ruled he had no such authority. Acton then ordered the closure of more than 3,600 public polling stations statewide due to the public health emergency.
However, Acton also faced backlash from protesters opposing stay-at-home mandates. In addition, she and some family members were threatened on the dark web and stalked, Acton said, adding that the Ohio State Highway Patrol had provided protection for the family.
The longtime medical professional and public health researcher said she was never in the spotlight, adding that she based her advice and informed decisions on determination and the latest science, not fear.
“I was a very ordinary person who found myself in the crosshairs of history”, said Acton. “We all have moments in life when we can’t look the other way.”
In February 2020, she began preparing for the likelihood of a pandemic in the state and country before gathering at the White House “with the best scientists in the world” because they realized the virus was out of control and would inevitably spread, Acton recalled.
She called the pandemic “a 9/11 moment”, say there was a greater sense of national and international unity seen in the early days, the same dynamics that took place in the days, weeks, and months following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Acton also noted that “pandemic script” was written during the administration of President George W. Bush with the understanding that such a health crisis was the country’s greatest threat because of its spread, duration and intensity – all of which gave it the potential to disrupt people’s lives for years.
Acton added that she hopes a committee on the pandemic will be appointed that would appear “the right people around the table and the brightest minds”, and operate in the same way as the 9/11 Commission, which was set up in November 2002 to investigate the circumstances and provide an accurate account of the terrorist attacks.
Acton said she also tried to help mainly small businesses hit by the pandemic, but the political climate surrounding the health crisis hampered those efforts.
Yet many people tried to derive meaning from their experiences. For example, one woman painted a different color with water each day of the pandemic, which went viral before she contracted COVID-19 and resulted in about 250,000 prayers for her, Acton explained.
If anything positive can be inferred from the health crisis that has resulted in many lost lives and lingering sadness, despair and grief, it is taking advantage of the “seeds of opportunity” that are made. They involve tapping into each other’s shared humanity and acting with courage, conviction and kindness toward others while refusing to succumb to complacency, Acton told her audience.
After stepping down as director of the Ohio Department of Health, she worked for the Columbus Foundation, created to help donors and others empower the community. She also helped establish a Jewish kindergarten in Columbus.
This year, Acton was named president and chief executive officer of RAPID 5, a nonprofit collaborative organization committed to further connecting people to nature, improving access to parks in the Columbus area, and creating a vision for one regional park network.
For her work, Acton received the 2021 COVID Courage Award from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and this year’s USA Today Woman of the Year.