Flathead County’s top public health official will leave the job when her contract expires at the end of the year, writing in a scathing letter of resignation that the county commissioners and board of health have failed to protect the public during the COVID-19 pandemic and that county leaders are more motivated by “ideological biases” than serving their community.
Tamalee St. James Robinson, who took over as the county’s public health officer on an interim basis in July, submitted her resignation to the Flathead County Commissioners and Board of Health Chair Bill Burg on Friday afternoon. St. James Robinson also resigned her position on the board of health, where she served as chair before temporarily vacating that role to fill the health officer job.
During her tenure, St. James Robinson’s advice has been rejected or ignored by county leaders at almost every level. Three separate proposals to limit the size of public gatherings or impose other restrictions as the outbreak has intensified this fall and winter were either voted down by the board of health or not voted on at all. The three county commissioners — Pam Holmquist, Phil Mitchell and Randy Brodehl — have offered no public support for any of St. James Robinson’s proposals and, in fact, put out a statement that supported residents who opt to disobey a statewide mask directive. And when St. James Robinson has asked the county attorney, Travis Ahner, to take action against local businesses found to be repeatedly defying the same mask directive, he has thus far declined, and a lawsuit by the state to force compliance has stalled.
In her letter of resignation, St. James Robinson directly expressed some of the frustration that has been building inside the Flathead City-County Health Department for months as employees have watched, sometimes through tears, as their pleas for support have been ignored.
“It has become clearly evident to me during the past several months that the actions of both the Flathead County Commissioners and the Flathead County Board of Health have been at cross purposes with the goal of maintaining our county’s public health,” she wrote. “Spiking Covid-19 case numbers, along with an increasing number of deaths, have been met with nearly complete inaction by your groups, versus any type of reasonable mitigating response. The Commissioner’s and Board’s failure to enact or publically [sic] support even the most basic recommendations regarding mask usage, along with any type of recommended group meeting restrictions, has not only increased public health risk, it has demonstrated a clear lack of support for the county health department.”
The health department has been beset by staff attrition and sagging morale since at least early September, when COVID-19 cases first began to spike in Flathead County. Since then, the county’s crisis has only deepened, with an astonishing 3,341 new confirmed positives reported so far in November, 47% of the county’s total since March. Twelve Flathead County residents have died from COVID-19 in the last nine days.
In an interview with the Beacon, St. James Robinson said informing health department staff of her decision on Monday “will be hard” and that it has been painful to watch the team there struggle through the pandemic as they “stand alone.”
“The staff are the ones who have taken the brunt of this,” St. James Robinson said. “It’s just been really frustrating to be in this position where I can’t really put in any mitigation to stop the numbers, to slow them down, with no real support from anywhere else.”
Amid the recent deaths and reality that darker days likely lie ahead for Flathead County, St. James Robinson and other high-ranking public health officials have also faced intense, often vile attacks from anti-mask community members. Current Board of Health Chair Bill Burg said he has received threatening emails from the public, even before calling for the resignation of anti-mask board member Annie Bukacek, and health department employees said they have been called “Nazis” and worse, and faced protests on their way into work. In her resignation letter, St. James Robinson addressed some of the political divisiveness that has seeped into public health — what had been a largely apolitical realm.
“It’s clear that the underlying motivation by several members of your groups is more closely aligned with ideological biases than the simple desire to do what’s best for the health of the community,” she wrote. “It was always my goal that any of my requests or restrictions would have as limited an impact on the individual rights of our county citizens and on our local economy as possible, while at the same time minimizing overall health risks. My primary focus was to enable our schools to remain open, lessen the burden on medical resources, and help keep businesses open. I encourage you to work towards that goal.”
St. James Robinson has spent more than 30 years working in public health, including two decades in Billings, and she remarked that nothing in her tenure has approached the politicization of the last few months, particularly in regard to wearing masks. She told the Beacon she took particular umbrage with the politics of Bukacek and that she harbored no hope that her resignation would in any way sway the board of health or county commission to act differently.
“The members on the board who have voted against mitigation strategies, I don’t think anything will change their minds,” St. James Robinson said. “They don’t see safeguarding the community’s health the way I do. I see it purely from a medical standpoint.”
The board of health has twice attempted to hire a replacement for St. James Robinson, only to have both candidates decline initial job offers. A third person was to be offered the position as of a board of health meeting on Nov. 19.
St. James Robinson also commented on that failed search in her resignation letter.
“While other factors may contribute to the problem, the toxic environment being fostered between the Commissioners, the Board of Health, and the Health Department is exacerbating (the) issue,” she wrote.