Health Officer ‘Concerned’ About COVID-19 Spread, No New Restrictions Implemented

Board of Health issues statement reminding residents that coronavirus policies come from state level; controversial health board member’s comments, actions stirring discord

By Andy Viano
Clinical staff clean equipment at Kalispell Regional Medical Center on July 31, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead City-County Public Health Officer said she is “concerned” about the dramatic uptick in COVID-19 cases in the county but is not yet recommending any local policy changes despite Gov. Steve Bullock’s recommendation that hot-spot counties do more to stop the spread of the virus.

In an interview on Thursday, Interim Public Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson said she and others are working on ways to stem the flow of new cases but did not elaborate on what measures are being considered. She added that any decision that was made would be done in concert with the Flathead City-County Board of Health and the Flathead County Commission, saying she “would not do anything unless I got their approval.”

At a Sept. 30 press conference, Bullock said an increase in cases “should cause us all some alarm” and identified six counties where the growth of the virus was particularly troubling, including Flathead. The governor referenced a call he had with White House Coronavirus Task Force physician Dr. Deborah Birx last week, during which Birx told Bullock she was “concerned” with case numbers in Flathead County and shared that hot-spot locales in other states had success when implementing stricter regulations, like closing bars and restaurants.

In response to the governor’s comments, Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist, who represents the county on the Board of Health, questioned why the governor wasn’t imposing new restrictions himself.

“Frankly, the authority lies with the governor,” Holmquist said. “At the end of the day, it’s his authority and his directive that the health officer follows in Flathead County, and the commissioners are even below the health officer. We are at the bottom of that, so why is he kicking it to us when we really don’t have that authority?”

In the early days of the pandemic, on March 19, former Public Health Officer Hillary Hanson approached the board of health with a proposal to close all bars and restaurants in the county. While the measure did not require a vote to go into effect, the board still took a symbolic one and approved the measure 8-1, with only Dr. Annie Bukacek opposing the move. One day later, Bullock issued a similar order closing bars and restaurants statewide.

The board of health and health department released a statement on Sept. 30 to remind county residents that all of the recommendations currently in place — including the directives to wear face coverings when in public and in schools — had come from the state level. The statement was issued in an effort to redirect a small but vocal minority that opposes such regulations and has expressed their anger directly to health department employees.

“In Flathead County, there are no standing Health Officer orders in addition to Governor Bullock’s Directives,” the statement reads. “This means that the FCCHD is assisting solely in the administration of the Governor’s state-wide directives.”

The statement was first discussed at the health board’s regularly scheduled Sept. 17 meeting, and during that conversation board member Dr. Peter Heyboer suggested the addition of language supporting the governor’s recommendations. According to Heyboer and Bill Burg, the board chair, language to that effect was included in a first draft but later stricken for procedural reasons, because the board had not listed that as a separate discussion point or brought its inclusion to a vote of the members. Burg said that releasing a statement to that effect is on the agenda for the board’s next scheduled meeting on Oct. 15, and both he and Heyboer expect the measure to be approved by a majority of the board’s members.

“I think we do support the (directives),” Burg said. “We support the recommendation because it is based on science that social distancing, washing your hands and wearing a mask (works), particularly in crowds.”

“There are areas where people are congregating and not following safe standards and I wish they did,” he added.

Shoppers wearing face masks stroll around downtown Whitefish on July 13, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Flathead County is currently experiencing a drastic increase in new cases of COVID-19, with the latest numbers showing 81 new infections on Sept. 30 and another 80 on Oct. 1. It took Flathead County 74 days to record its first 800 cases of the novel coronavirus and just 19 days for the next 800 to be confirmed. As of Oct. 5, the county had reported 21 deaths, and St. James Robinson issued a statement saying the county is at a “critical point” in controlling the virus.

Kyle Waterman, a member of the Kalispell City Council who represents the city on the board of health, said communicating with the public is key to managing the pandemic. The board’s direct responsibilities do not include an active role in day-to-day operation of the health department, but Waterman sees an opportunity for the nine-member collective of politicians, health professionals and community members to be leaders in promoting a safe, effective response.

“For us to move forward as a community and for us to have economic success next year, we need to get on top of this and treat this as a very serious event,” Waterman said.

In a later statement to the Beacon, Waterman reasserted the importance of preparing for a future with the coronavirus and combating it as a community.

“Make plans to live with COVID for the next year,” he wrote. “Know who’s going to be in your social bubble, consider how you’re going to navigate holidays and gatherings, (and) continue to wear masks, socially distance and encourage your bubble to do the same.”

Notably, Waterman’s statement represents only his individual perspective, as the divisiveness of the public health response to the coronavirus, specifically the use of cloth masks to reduce viral spread, has not escaped the board of health. Three members interviewed for this story — Heyboer, Waterman and Burg — agreed that masks were an effective way to slow the spread of COVID-19, as did the county health officer. Holmquist declined to respond on the record to a question on masks’ efficacy and the governor’s directive to wear them, and at least one board member, Dr. Bukacek, is openly hostile to the idea of wearing masks.

Bukacek, who was appointed to the board by the county commissioners earlier this year, frequently promotes anti-mask events on her Facebook page, publicly questions the seriousness of COVID-19, and appeared maskless at a Kalispell school board meeting this summer. That meeting was adjourned and moved online because several attendees refused to wear masks.

Bukacek’s COVID-19 positions have drawn the ire of some community members, including at least one call for her resignation after her appearance at the school board meeting, part of a months-long public outcry over her actions. In April, Flathead County Commissioner Phil Mitchell said he had received more than 100 emails urging Bukacek’s removal from the board and that he regretted appointing her.

“I am sorry that I put her on the board and I am sorry for how she has acted,” Mitchell said at the time. “I’m frustrated but there’s not a lot I can do. I’m only one commissioner.”

In a Sept. 10 email sent to the other board members and obtained by the Beacon, Bukacek reminded them she was free to express her opinions in public, writing “it will be a sad day when those holding any official government position are precluded from their First Amendment right of free speech.”

“I have never claimed to speak for the board and on many cases have clarified this even though it should be obvious to any reasonable person,” she continued.

Heyboer and Bukacek are the only members of the board who are licensed physicians, and Heyboer said he makes no judgment of Bukacek’s motives but called her opinions on mask wearing and the coronavirus “widely divergent from the medical mainstream.” Asked about Bukacek’s well-known public stances, he spoke instead about his own experiences since joining the board in July.

“I certainly feel that in our community, it’s kind of hard to be anonymous,” Heyboer said. “What’s hard to delineate is me speaking as a board of health member and me speaking as a private citizen … People that know me know that I’m on the board of health, and so they are looking at my behavior and looking at some of the activities I’m engaging in and saying, ‘If Dr. Heyboer said this is OK, it must be OK.’”

Bukacek further stirred controversy at the Sept. 17 board of health meeting when she referenced the Nuremberg Trials, the 1946 military tribunal where political, military and other leaders of Nazi Germany were prosecuted. Bukacek’s allusion sparked a sharp rebuke from St. James Robinson, the health officer, who wrote in an email to the board that her beleaguered staff was “VERY disheartened to hear (Bukacek) make reference to their work as Nazis” at the meeting.

“This is very demoralizing for them to not have the support of our board members,” she added.

In an email response to St. James Robinson and the board, Bukacek said her comments about the Nuremberg Trials were offered in reference to “statements made by board members that the health department was simply carrying out the governor’s orders.”

“Please reassure [health department employees] I was referring to myself as much as anyone else involved with the health department … concerned that down the road (in carrying out the directive/orders) we will discover we have been seduced into something that has done more harm than we could have imagined. I stand by that concern,” Bukacek wrote.

“As a result of conscience and my responsibility, I have questioned what the governor has done. Whether in the end my counterpoints turn out to be wholly, partially, or even only marginally right, I still have the duty to voice them,” she concluded.

When reached by the Beacon, Bukacek didn’t elaborate on her comments for this story.

andy@flatheadbeacon.com

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