What Legacy Does Amy Acton Leave In DeWine's Administration?

Aug 5, 2020

Dr. Amy Acton, the chief health adviser to Gov. Mike DeWine, is officially leaving the administration. The transition concludes a long, high-profile journey for the former Ohio Department of Health director.

When it came time for newly-elected governor DeWine to form his cabinet, some picks came faster than others. The last position he filled happened more than a month after taking office when he named Acton as head of the Ohio Department of Health. 

DeWine said he wanted to make sure he made the best choice and felt confident Acton, the first physician to fill the role in five years and first woman ever, was the right pick. 

Acton, who was once homeless as a teenager from Youngstown, said she was going to make infant mortality and teen homelessness priorities. She added that she takes a holistic approach to health. 

"The food we eat is our health. Where we live, the ZIP code we're born into is our health," Acton said in February 2019. "All the things that surround us are creating the conditions in which we can lead flourishing lives."

Acton also spoke out on lead paint’s effect on kids, teen vaping and the use of e-cigarettes.

But just over a year later, Acton took center stage with DeWine in leading Ohio's response to the coronavirus pandemic. In February 2020, she laid out the steps the state was taking to prevent the spread of the virus, saying that it was only a matter of time until it came to Ohio. 

Acton was also at the forefront when Ohio made its first coronavirus-related move, and one of the largest decisions nationwide at that time, in canceling the Arnold Sports Festival for spectators. 

"No one wants to make a difficult decision in times like this. But we have to keep going using what we know, as you know, has been evolving hour by hour," Acton said during that press conference in March. 

From there, Acton became a familiar face during DeWine's daily press briefings. She kept people up-to-date with the latest statistics on COVID-19 in Ohio and what the state was doing to prevent the spread.  

During that time, schools, bars and restaurants, hair salons and barbershops, and entertainment venues all were shut down. When DeWine made the major announcement that the state was closing all non-essential businesses for the stay-at-home order, it was Acton who called for calm and determination. 

"This is a war on a silent enemy," Acton said. "I don't want you to be afraid. I am not afraid. But I need you to do everything. I want you to think about the fact that this is our one shot in this country."

Over the next few months, Acton garnered acclaim around the state and across the country for her approach in delivering detailed health information in a personable way. 

On Facebook, the "Dr. Amy Acton Fan Club" page has more than 130,000 members. A video with a cartoon-drawn DeWine and Acton, set to the "Laverne & Shirley" theme song, has more than 1.2 million views on YouTube. And Acton even joined Elmo and Big Bird for a Sesame Street town hall with CNN, geared towards talking about the coronavirus with kids. 

The attention was backed by the slow spread of the virus in Ohio in the spring, which saw lower case numbers per capita compared to other states with a high population. 

But Acton's presence and counsel drew critics as well. Demonstrators would gather at the Ohio Statehouse to protest the business closures and demand that Acton step down. The Ohio House passed a piece of legislation that would limit the powers of the health department director, with some lawmakers calling her a "dictator." And a small group of people even demonstrated outside her home. 

This drew the ire of DeWine, who said people should be protesting him instead, since he's the elected official. 

"To bother the family of Dr. Acton, I don't think that's fair game," DeWine said in May. "I don't think it's right. I don't think it's necessary to get your point across."

A "Dr. Amy Acton Fan Club" sign posted down the street from Acton's house where a group of demonstrators gather.
Credit Karen Kasler / Statehouse News Bureau

In June, as the state began the process of reopening businesses, Acton announced that she was stepping down from the Ohio Department of Health, but would remain with the administration as the governor's chief health adviser and continue to focus on COVID-19.

Announcing her resignation, Acton thanked state troopers who had become a presence in her neighborhood. And she had one final message to the people of Ohio.

"Ohioans you have saved lives," Acton said. "You've done this, and it is my honor to continue to work on this alongside of you and to witness what you have done already, what you are doing right now to get back into our lives and do so as safely as we can, and I look forward to what you are going to do next."

Since Acton left the Department of Health, however, Ohio's early fortunes with flattening the curve have reversed. Ohio had recorded just over 42,000 COVID-19 cases by Acton's resignation on June 11 – by the time she left as chief health adviser on August 4, that number more than doubled to 95,000.

However, DeWine has said those first few months were instrumental in helping the state bulk up its hospital capacity, increasing testing and implement best practices for businesses.

Acton plans to return to her previous work in the nonprofit sector with the Columbus Foundation.