Medical Professionals Express Concerns Over Fair

The city-county health board names interim health officer; joint health and fair board meeting to be held next week

By Micah Drew
The carnival by night at the Northwest Montana Fair in Kalispell on August 15, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Multiple physicians expressed concerns about holding the Western Montana Fair during a pandemic at the monthly meeting of the Flathead City-County Health Board on July 16.

“They’re worried about an event that could potentially cause a lot more spread in the valley,” said Dr. Jayson Cohen, chief medical officer at North Valley Hospital who spoke behalf of his colleagues.

“It’s not that anyone’s against the fair, it’s just the idea of actually observing all the things you need to do to keep people safe while having a fair, it’s just a virtually impossible task.”

Last week, the county fair board announced it was going forward with the Western Montana Fair, which will run August 19-23. Since the announcement there has been a lot of public discourse, on both sides, about whether proceeding is the right thing to do.

“I think under normal circumstances, having a safe fair is a challenge,” said Dr. Jeffrey Tjaden, an infectious disease specialist. “I think under the circumstances of a pandemic, it’s even more challenging.”

Tjaden pointed out that the size of the fair is worrying because contact tracing, the standard practice of monitoring close contacts of a COVID-19 positive individual, is nearly impossible.

Both doctors also mentioned that testing in the county has been backlogged and results are taking up to nine days, increasing the challenge of tracing any outbreaks.

Additional comments at the health board meeting expressed further concern of the fair taking place just days before Flathead County schools are slated to begin.

“It’s almost hurtful in a way when we see folks going out and kind of behaving recklessly when you’re a health care worker,” said Cohen. “Because people are dying.”

The health board noted that the ability to regulate events for public health was a power of the health officer.

“I think if we’re going to look at the cancellation of events, we need to look at it in a structured manner,” said health officer Hillary Hanson. “The fair is coming to lots of attention, but there are many other events happening in the community — I think it’s worthy of a conversation overall.”

Hanson will step down as health officer for the county after this weekend, having been tapped to lead the recently formed Montana Public Health Institute. She will continue to work with the county as a consultant.

Tamilee St. James Robinson, chair of the health board, was named interim health officer until a permanent health officer is hired. The search, which began earlier this year, was set back after the lead candidate turned down an offer last month.

“This is not a decision I want to make on my own,” Robinson said about ruling on the fair. “I think we need not only our board, but the [fair] commissioners and physicians.”

At a meeting of the fair board, held the same day, members of the medical community also expressed their concerns. Recent health board appointee Dr. Pete Heyboer talked about his concern of the potential for large-scale spread resulting from the event.

The board stated that safety was paramount to going through with the fair.

The fair board has been collaborating closely with the health department to ensure adherence to all county guidelines. Next week there will be a joint health and fair board meeting to maximize communication and finalize decisions about the event.

“Our primary focus when it comes down to the end of the day, is the educational component for the youth,” said board chair Sam Nunnally. “We provide entertainment through rodeo, through concerts, through the demolition derby to draw people in to highlight that educational component… but the number one priority is the education of the youth through 4H and FFA.”

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