YOUNGSTOWN — Dr. Amy Acton is well aware of the untold grievance and despair the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has wrought, but her remedy for coping has always consisted of four “C’s” and a “K” — communicating and being clear, concise, credible and kind.
“It’s no mandate; it’s what Ohioans do to pull one another up,” Acton, former director of the Ohio Department of Health, said, referring to how many people have reached beyond themselves since the pandemic began in March 2020.
Acton, who many Ohioans remember for her reassuring and compassionate voice of direction and guidance during the pinnacle of the health crisis, spoke Sunday at the Jewish Community Center of Youngstown, 505 Gypsy Lane, on the North Side. She shared many of her experiences before, during and after her role as Gov. Mike DeWine’s adviser in the pandemic’s early days when he delivered daily briefings about it from the Statehouse.
Her one-hour, sold-out presentation likely further resonated with the estimated 165 in attendance because she was raised on the North Side before moving to Liberty in the seventh grade and attending Liberty High School, where she was a National Honor Society member and homecoming queen.
Acton, who lives in Bexley, described her “rough childhood” that entailed continually moving during a 12-year period and dealing with the divorce of her parents and her mother’s illness, as well as being homeless, living in a tent and having sparse food supplies.
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 always tried to be “brutally honest” regarding disseminating information about how the pandemic was unfolding. That included helping to craft what some saw as unpopular moves, such as advising DeWine on stay-at-home edicts.
DeWine was the first governor to close schools and limit gatherings to 100 people or fewer — even though the state had only three confirmed coronavirus cases at the time, Acton recalled. Ohio also was the first state to temporarily close bars and restaurants with fewer than 40 confirmed cases.
In addition, she advocated for postponing the 2020 Ohio Democratic presidential primary, set for March 17, 2020. The day before, DeWine canceled the election before a judge ruled he lacked such authority. Acton then ordered the closing of more than 3,600 public polling sites statewide because of the public health emergency.
Acton, however, also received pushback from protesters who rallied against 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 offered protection to the family.
The longtime medical professional and public-health researcher said she never sought the limelight, adding that she based her advice and measured decisions on determination and the latest science, not fear.
“I was a very ordinary person who found myself in the crosshairs of history,” Acton said. “We all have moments in life when we can’t look the other way.”
In February 2020, she began to prepare 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 not under control and would inevitably spread, Acton remembered.
She called the pandemic “a 9/11 moment,” saying that a greater sense of national and international unity was seen in its early days, the same dynamic that occurred in the days, weeks and months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Acton also noted that a “pandemic playbook” was written during the President George W. Bush administration, 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 capability to disrupt people’s lives for years.
Acton added she hopes to see a commission on the pandemic appointed that would feature “the right people around the table and the best minds,” and operate similarly to the 9/11 Commission, which was set up in November 2002 to investigate the circumstances and give an accurate accounting of the terrorist attacks.
Acton said she also tried to help especially small businesses impacted by the pandemic, but that the political climate surrounding the health crisis hampered those efforts.
Nevertheless, many people tried to derive meaning from their experiences. For example, one woman water-painted a different color each day of the pandemic, which went viral before she got COVID-19 and resulted in about 250,000 prayers for her, Acton explained.
If anything positive can be gleaned from the health crisis that has resulted in many lives lost and continuing grief, despair and sadness, it’s taking advantage of the “seeds of opportunity” that have been created. They include tapping into one another’s shared humanity as well as acting with courage, conviction and kindness toward others while refusing to succumb to complacency, Acton told her audience.
After stepping down as Ohio Department of Health director, she worked for the Columbus Foundation, set up to help donors and others in strengthening the community. She also helped found a Jewish preschool in Columbus.
This year, Acton was named president and chief executive officer of RAPID 5, a collaborative nonprofit organization dedicated to further connecting people with nature, improving access to parks in the Columbus area and aiming to create a vision for a single regional park network.
For her work, Acton received the COVID Courage Award in 2021 from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, as well as being this year’s USA Today Woman of the Year.