FISHERS, Ind. (Fort Wayne's NBC) - Public discourse deteriorated into political bickering and even death threats as health leaders worked to contain the COVID-19 pandemic, former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams tells Fort Wayne's NBC in a one-on-one interview.
The conversation took place in Adams' central Indiana home four months after the completion of his term as the Nation's Doctor.
Adams served in the Trump Administration for all but six months of its duration, but it was the final year -- a year like no other -- that put the former Indiana Health Commissioner in the spotlight.
He said he heard plenty from critics during the pandemic. Many questioned why he didn't resign.
Some threatened his life.
"I had death threats delivered to my mailbox at my house," he said. "There was actually quite a bit of it. It was directed at me by both sides.
"I had racial epithets thrown at me, by just as many people on the left as on the right. And these were people who I was there fighting to represent as a public servant.
"In many cases, there were people who questioned my very blackness, because I worked for this administration -- again, the irony being that one of the main reasons I stayed was because I felt it was important for there to be a person of color at the table... a person who grew up poor, a person who had medical experience, giving input,"
"I can't have a public health conversation without it being forced into political framing by the media and by people who have fallen into their political tribes."
As Surgeon General, Adams felt the pull of politics on decisions, policy and public relations regarding the COVID-19 pandemic.
"You had a once-in-a-century pandemic," he told Fort Wayne's NBC. "It would have been difficult to deal with under any circumstances. It would have been difficult to communicate to the public under any circumstances.
"Then you superimpose a presidential election -- and not just any presidential election; perhaps the most divisive presidential election of most of our lives.
"When I'm talking about whether you wear a mask or not, people automatically, in their minds, associate that with you being a Trump supporter or a Biden supporter.
"I can't have a public health conversation without it being forced into political framing by the media and by people who have fallen into their political tribes. And so that has made it incredibly challenging for anyone out there who just wants to have a conversation about the science."
"I would go in for a three-minute interview two and a half minutes of it would be questions about Trump or about Biden. That's something that was happening before Trump in terms of this political framing of issues. I think we need to move past that."
And Adams believes that -- much like pandemic itself -- there was little that could be done to stem the spread of that political tinge.
That, he said, is baked into the American landscape.
"I think that it's easy to blame it all on Donald Trump. That's the easy thing to do," he said. "But this was going in that direction well before Donald Trump.
"When you look at our national cable news, I won't call out any channels here, but there are channels that are clearly left-leaning there are channels that are clearly right-leaning. And I will tell you when I would do interviews with those stations, I would be asked questions that were framed politically and framed to favor one party, or framed to favor another party.
"I just wanted to be a doctor," he said. "I would prepare for hours for these interviews looking at the science, making sure I had it down pat. I would go in for a three-minute interview (and) two-and-a-half minutes of it would be questions about Trump or about Biden.
"That's something that was happening before Trump in terms of this political framing of issues. I think we need to move past that."
Though no longer in any office, Adams continues to follow the "policy and practice" debate.
On vaccine passports: "I don't see America supporting that idea. Even when there was talk of that, people really pushed back, and I think we have to listen to what people are saying."
He does, however, foresee some companies and certain events requiring proof of vaccination -- or continuing a "mandatory mask" policy for those who fail to provide it.
"I honestly believe in in four to eight weeks, if we all came together, got vaccinated, wore masks in the meantime, I really do believe that in that time frame, we could have this virus under control, have some semblance of a normal self," he said.
And he's using his social media presence to spread the gospel of good health -- especially to those with strong positions on either side of the political spectrum.
Adams' 15-year-old son was among the first to receive a COVID-19 vaccination following the lowering of the minimum age to 12.
He has spoken extensively about his own family's experiences, not only regarding the pandemic, but cancer (his wife is a survivor) and addiction (his brother has struggled with substance use disorders).
More from Dr. Jerome Adams
On Dr. Deborah Birx: "She was the only woman physician in the room... Often times, the only woman in the room. I was the only African-American in the room. And there were many times when she spoke as a mother, when I spoke as someone who grew up poor, who grew up black. And we talked about how the pandemic was impacting us. And that shaped policy. We didn't always win. We didn't. But if we weren't at the table, then we were never going to win."
On vaccine acceptance: "We need to help Biden voters and Trump voters, Republicans and Democrats, blacks and whites, men and women all understand how they can be part of the solution. And I do believe that the last administration, even with Fox, did a lot to position our country to to get over this, this terrible pandemic. Three vaccines, three vaccines available in less than a year for the public. I think if Trump voters hear more about that, then I think they're going to be more likely to take a vaccine that they see him as having a part in. So that's... that's important."