Longtime Health Officer Coming Out of Retirement to Stabilize Beleaguered Department

Joe Russell, who served as Flathead health officer for two decades before retiring in 2017, is expected to accept offer to return to top job amid COVID-19 pandemic

By Andy Viano
Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell, pictured on May 30, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Joe Russell successfully led the Flathead City-County Health Department (FCCHD) during a celebrated 20-year career as the county’s top health official before settling comfortably into retirement with his handpicked successor in place.

That was three years ago.

Now, with the county in the midst of an unprecedented crisis and the department in turmoil after months of widespread staff burnout, growing public defiance of health recommendations and bitter disagreements with county leaders, Russell is expected to return to his old post by the start of next month and guide Flathead County back to solid footing with the end of the pandemic in sight.

Russell was formally nominated as the new county health officer at an emergency Flathead City-County Board of Health meeting on Thursday afternoon. The board voted to authorize the county to begin contract negotiations with Russell, negotiations that are expected to be a formality.

In an interview with the Beacon late Thursday afternoon, Russell said he’s never fully lost touch with the department since his retirement in 2017 and that he’d been toying with the idea of a return since at least this summer, when his replacement, Hillary Hanson, resigned. That idea picked up steam when Tamalee St. James Robinson, Hanson’s interim successor, announced she would be leaving the job on Dec. 31.

“I spent 20 years running that health department and to think that it would go leaderless after the end of this month was really hard on me,” Russell said. “I hired a great person in (Hanson) and when she left there was always a portion of me going, ‘oh crap,’ they’re trying to hire somebody in the middle of a COVID pandemic. I can go in there, I can do COVID response, I’ve done the administrative stuff. I don’t know that there’s anyone who’s a better fit right now for that job.”

The county health board made two attempts to hire Hanson’s permanent replacement but both searches ended with their chosen candidates turning down the job, including two finalists identified last month. St. James Robinson, the former board of health chair, accepted the interim position on July 1 but announced last week that she would resign when her contract expired.

That news prompted county leaders to reach out to Russell, a trained epidemiologist, whose selection came together quickly. He only formally applied for the job this week and, in his cover letter, he highlighted a litany of accomplishments during 30 years at FCCHD, including his prior stewardship of the county’s response to a measles outbreak in 1987, the H1N1 influenza in 2009 and a potential Ebola outbreak in the mid-2010s.

“I got a call and they said, ‘hey, would you consider?’ and I said, ‘yeah I would’ and I don’t think that’s what the commissioners’ office thought they would hear,” Russell said. “I didn’t need a lot of talking to about it.”

Russell was just 58 years old when he retired in 2017 and while he has turned educator in the years since he’s stayed in tune with the goings on at FCCHD. It is, after all, the only place he had worked before 2017. Russell joined the department in 1987, was named deputy health officer in 1997 and ascended to the top job less than a year later.

In returning to the health officer role, Russell acknowledged the difficulty the county has had in filling the position, in part because of the pandemic and in part because of how toxic the conversation around COVID-19 has become. Flathead County has seen regular anti-mask and anti-regulation demonstrations since March, health department employees have faced insults and conspiratorial accusations from the public and even board of health meetings have been contentious, with some members growing increasingly frustrated with an anti-regulation faction led by outspoken anti-mask board member Dr. Annie Bukacek.

“It’s hard nationally to find public health administrators, and when you put COVID on top of it and some of the senseless harassment some of these people are taking, it was going to be a monumental task,” Russell said. “We need to get through COVID, we need to have things settle down, we need to build that strong relationship back with the rest of the county, all of that stuff needs to be done. Who better? I guess it’s the guy who did it for a while.”

At Thursday’s emergency board meeting, Russell’s experience and familiarity with Flathead County was a major plus for most of the members of the board of health, many of whom spoke strongly in support of the move. His advocates included Flathead County Commissioner Pam Holmquist, who worked with Russell during his prior stint as health officer but has also voted against the COVID mitigation proposals put forward by St. James Robinson.

“I think we should feel fortunate that we have someone that lives in the valley that can hit the ground running (and) that’s willing to come out of retirement to help us here,” Holmquist said. “I’m thankful that he has decided to actually come out of retirement to help us out and get us to a better place.”

Members of the board and Russell both expect his impending tenure will be significantly shorter than his last one. Russell anticipates signing a one-year contract and, in the ideal scenario, he will shepherd the department through the end of the pandemic, then focus on finding and training his successor.

“I’m kind of looking forward to it and kind of wondering what the heck’s wrong with me in the head, that I’m going to lose all that scheduling freedom and go back to work Monday through Friday plus,” Russell said. “(But) this public health system in Flathead County means a lot to me.”

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