Controversy is intensifying over a physician serving on the Flathead City-County Board of Health who has openly defied state and local policies guarding against the coronavirus outbreak, prompting widespread calls for her removal and a petition demanding she be ousted from the appointed position.
Dr. Annie Bukacek has served on the health board since January, when she and another appointee replaced two decade-long members in a move that infuriated the incumbents and drew heavy criticism from the public, in particular because of Bukacek’s outspoken opposition to vaccinations.
Complaints about Bukacek have escalated since the coronavirus outbreak led to a series of state and local directives intended to slow its spread, including a stay-at-home order and the advent of social-distancing guidelines. Bukacek has openly challenged the measures and helped organize a protest outside of Kalispell City Hall on April 6, when officials voted to declare a state of local emergency in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the time, Bukacek accused the city of ushering in “martial law” and other degrees of government overreach, and brandished a sign that read “Heil Russell,” a reference to City Manager Doug Russell and what Bukacek perceived as the dictator-like imposition of government restrictions. About 30 people attended the protest.
Other city governments and Flathead County had issued identical declarations weeks earlier, and Kalispell officials stressed that the order was written in broad terms to address a potential public health emergency, including tapping new funding sources.
And in March, Bukacek emerged as the lone member of the health board to vote in opposition to a directive closing bars, restaurants and fitness centers to the public in an effort to fight the coronavirus pandemic. In comments to the board and via a packet she distributed to its members, Bukacek questioned whether COVID-19 was as deadly as medical officials have stated, and asked whether forcing businesses to close was going too far. She also said she was worried about food shortages caused by public fear and that people who are not experiencing symptoms of coronavirus may not receive the attention they need from a medical system focused on the outbreak.
Bukacek handed out a printout that called Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and leader of the federal government’s response to the outbreak, a “fearmonger.”
Shortly after the protest at city hall, Bukacek garnered national attention and generated additional controversy when she addressed a congregation at Liberty Fellowship Church in Kalispell claiming the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) manipulated death certificate data and figures to exaggerate the death toll from COVID-19. A YouTube video of the talk posted on April 6 has been viewed at least 750,000 times, while complaints to the county health department have mounted over Liberty Fellowship and its live worship services. (On its Facebook page, Liberty Fellowship Pastor Chuck Baldwin explained in a post that the services are in “complete compliance” with Montana Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home directive.)
The controversy swirling around Bukacek culminated during an April 16 virtual health board meeting when she continued to push back against the health measures, even as numerous members of the public pressed county officials to remove her from the board, saying her behavior undermines the directives and puts others at risk.
“It’s clear that this misinformation is dividing the community, and it’s in defiance of what we’re being told by health experts and by the people putting their lives on the line to combat this pandemic,” Cherilyn Devries, of Love Lives Here Flathead, a Montana Human Rights Network affiliate, said. “We are very concerned about this because it could undermine public health.”
During the meeting, Bukacek questioned the merits of directives that restrict visitors to assisted-living facilities whose elderly residents are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19 infections, suggesting they be reopened to family members. One board member reminded her that the outbreak of coronavirus at an assisted-living facility in Toole County has been responsible for four of Montana’s 10 deaths.
Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell said he has received more than 100 emails urging Bukacek’s removal from the board and that he regrets appointing her.
“I am disappointed in her and in fact I am pissed off,” Mitchell said. “I am sorry that I put her on the board and I am sorry for how she has acted. I’m frustrated but there’s not a lot I can do. I’m only one commissioner.”
Meanwhile, a petition on the website change.org has garnered hundreds of signatures in support of Bukacek’s removal from the county board and calling her behavior “reckless.”
Commissioners Pam Holmquist, who serves on the health board, and Randy Brodehl have not yet taken a stance on the requests for Bukacek’s removal, but said they are consulting the Flathead County Attorney’s Office.
Holmquist said Bukacek is entitled to her First Amendment rights to peacefully assemble and free speech, and minimized her authority as a county health representative, saying she’s only one person on a nine-member board.
But Mitchell said Bukacek’s suggestion that protective measures be lifted at senior-care facilities was outright dangerous.
“This is the most vulnerable population we’re talking about, and we have instances where people died under the exact circumstances she’s championing,” Mitchell said.
Dr. David Myerowitz, a retired cardiac surgeon and the former chair of the Flathead City-County Health Board who preceded Bukacek, said the public should be alarmed by her views, but that he isn’t surprised.
“I warned everybody that she was going to use her board position to proselytize her views, and here we go,” Myerowitz said. “She had already planted her flag in the ground on vaccinations, and anyone who believes that childhood vaccination is a greater harm than good is not a friend to public health.”
Myerowitz said while he believes it’s time to begin easing restrictions on businesses and lifting the stay-at-home order, they were put in place for good reason. He worries that Bukacek will continue to resist other public health directives, and even oppose a vaccine if one is developed.
“She is a Molotov cocktail thrower, and she is totally anti-government of any kind,” Myerowitz said. “So her attitude is to throw a Molotov cocktail at anything that smacks of government intervention, even if it’s being done for a greater good and a greater all.”
In an email exchange, Bukacek said her comments at Liberty Fellowship services and her activism outside Kalispell City Hall were an expression of her views as “an individual citizen, a private practice physician, not as a spokesperson for the board.”
Bukacek said her talk received 1.5 million views in five days on various YouTube channels, and encouraged members of the public to research the issue of manipulated death toll figures themselves.
In response to specific questions about her views on public health measures and whether she supports development of a COVID-19 vaccine, Bukacek did not answer directly, but said, “I believe people need to be encouraged to think for themselves and use critical thinking when they do, weighing the evidence.”
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