The Flathead City-County Board of Health opted for inaction in response to the county’s intensifying COVID-19 outbreak at its monthly meeting on Thursday, rejecting a proposal to limit the size of allowable gatherings to 500 people and offering no discussion on previously proposed regulations that were removed from the board’s agenda without explanation just before the meeting began.
The sometimes-contentious meeting pitted the medical community, public health officer and a minority of board members against the board’s majority, who questioned the way case and testing numbers are reported, offered disputed alternate science and cautioned against infringing on the freedoms of local residents. The mood aligned with a series of back-and-forth press releases in recent weeks, including Gov. Steve Bullock urging the hot-spot county to act and the Flathead County Commission responding by offering support of those who ignore the governor’s health mandates, including wearing masks in public. At the same time, the health department has been sounding the alarm with greater urgency in recent days regarding exponential case growth, as well as stresses to the local healthcare system and the department’s own struggles to manage the virus.
Earlier this week, the health department offered a Control Measure Plan that detailed the seriousness of the county’s current situation and proposed several measures intended to reverse the current trends, including limiting bars, restaurants and churches to 25% capacity as early as next month if the county’s caseload did not lessen. The proposal appeared on the board’s online agenda in the days leading up to the meeting but had been pulled down by the time the meeting started on Thursday.
Before they were removed from discussion, the proposed restrictions spurred a deluge of comment from the public both in support and against the measures, with more than 200 written submissions received and dozens more offered during the meeting, which was held via Zoom video conference. At the outset of the meeting, board chair Bill Burg notified the attendees the proposal would not be discussed and offered no explanation for why the proposal was pulled. The board chair or two board members may add or remove any agenda items before a meeting begins.
Instead, the board unanimously passed a motion to authorize internal discussion aimed at crafting a unified public message, and, by a 5-3 margin, voted down a separate health department proposal that would have limited the size of allowable gatherings in Flathead County to 500 or fewer people, twice as high as the recommendation from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Board members Dr. Annie Bukacek, Ardis Larsen, Ronalee Skees, Burg and County Commissioner Pam Holmquist voted down the measure, moving to do so in part after hearing from County Attorney Travis Ahner, who warned some parts of the proposal would be difficult to enforce and might be susceptible to legal challenges. Dr. Peter Heyboer, Kalispell City Councilor Kyle Waterman and Roger Noble voted in the minority.
Early in the meeting, the board heard from a panel of health experts and community leaders, most of whom spoke strongly in support of additional measures, including Kalispell Regional Healthcare CEO Dr. Craig Lambrecht, KRH Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. Jeff Tjaden and Kalispell Public Schools Superintendent Micah Hill. Hill specifically warned that an inability to control the spread of the virus in the community could have widespread consequences.
“If we cannot mitigate the spread in the broader community, we are absolutely at risk of closing our schools to in-person instruction,” Hill said. “If we close, requiring many working parents to come home with their young students, we are directly impacting (businesses’) ability to serve our community.”
Lambrecht used his time to describe the challenges currently facing Kalispell Regional Medical Center, where 29 people were hospitalized due to COVID-19 as of Wednesday night. Staffing is the hospital’s largest concern, Lambrecht said, as COVID patients require “continuous care” and that a shortage of available personnel, not a lack of available beds, was pushing the facility near a tipping point.
“We’re bringing in traveling nurses because the tax on our staff is going to be something we have to pay attention to. The slope of the curve doesn’t look encouraging,” he said. “We’re busy, it’s crazy, the stress on staff is real, and we’re preparing for this for the long haul.”
The board’s majority, however, was unmoved. In her opening comments, board member Dr. Annie Bukacek rounded the survival rate for COVID-19 to 100%, which is false, and attributed the rising number of positive tests primarily to an increase in testing. Those comments prompted a visibly irritated Tjaden, the county’s foremost expert on COVID-19, to interrupt Bukacek and abruptly announce he was leaving the meeting.
Heyboer, a KRH physician, used his time to plead for the board to take any kind of action, something it has not done since mid-March, stressing that positive cases in the county have grown exponentially in the last six weeks.
“It’s clear that what’s going on right now is not working and if we leave things as they currently are we are doing our community a disservice,” he said. “We are asked to step up and take the lead on this. We need to try and do something.”
“We all want to have our lives back but the virus doesn’t really care about our feelings,” he continued. “It’s not going away. People are going to die, even more so, if we as the public health department and the board that supports it don’t try and do something.”
The nearly three-hour meeting concluded with discussion of the lone remaining proposal on the table, a recommendation from the health department that the board limit the size of allowable gatherings to 500 people, and require anyone hosting an event between 50 and 499 people submit a proposal for disease control to the health department, something already recommended by the state.
The board members who voted down the proposal seized on an earlier comment from Ahner, the county attorney, who recommended the board have “justification” for choosing the specific numbers referenced in the proposal in case of a legal challenge. He also later recommended clarifying whether the order would apply to indoor and outdoor venues, using a ski resort as an example, and asserting such a facility would have to abide by the measure even as Interim Public Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson said it would not.
Holmquist leaned heavily on Ahner’s explanation, cautioning that “picking and choosing who we’re going to restrict” could be “discriminatory” and she instead pivoted to a message of unity. Holmquist spearheaded a proposal to bring together herself, Heyboer, Bukacek and St. James Robinson in order to come up with a consensus message on COVID-19 mitigation to the community. The board unanimously approved that proposal.
“I don’t think a press release is going to have very much impact on our COVID numbers,” Deputy Health Officer Kerry Nuckles said after the meeting. “I think it was disappointing.”
As of Oct. 14, Flathead County had confirmed 1,030 new COVID-19 infections in the month of October alone, including a single-day record 111 on Wednesday. Twenty-nine people were hospitalized and more than 700 cases were reported as active. On Tuesday, the health department announced it was unable to keep up with case investigations due to a severe staffing crisis and a rising caseload, a warning echoed by the public health officer on Thursday.
In the closing minutes of the board meeting, after her department’s recommendations had been either ignored or rejected, St. James Robinson addressed the panel and what remained of the 100 or so attendees at the virtual meeting.
“We’ll do the best we can but this is an impossible job,” she said, adding that the department is losing staff members on a regular basis. “It’s really hard on the employees. We are put in an impossible position.”