Board of Health Approves Hiring of New Health Officer

Joe Russell’s contract was unanimously approved on Wednesday; he is set to assume the position on Monday

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

Joe Russell has been officially rehired to helm the Flathead City-County Health Department after the county health board approved a one-year contract for his services at an emergency meeting late Wednesday afternoon.

His first day on the job will be Monday, Dec. 14.

The board approved Russell’s hiring by an 8-0 vote, one that included several enthusiastic yeses and a “yay” from Board Chair Bill Burg, whose signature on Russell’s contract will end a protracted search for a public health leader that has lasted nearly a year. In that time, three candidates turned down the job, including two finalists identified last month. Russell’s contract is for just one year but board member Kyle Waterman, who chairs the personnel committee, said the search for a health officer is officially over. In an interview with the Beacon last week, when he was first nominated for the job, Russell said he expects his second tenure to be significantly shorter than his last appointment.

Russell stepped away in 2017 after 20 years as the county’s top public health official but decided to come out of retirement — for a year, at least — in an effort to bring some stability to what has been a tumultuous last nine months. Russell will be the county’s third heath officer this year, replacing Tamalee St. James Robinson, who took the job on an interim basis July 1 after the resignation of Hillary Hanson. Hanson was Russell’s top lieutenant and handpicked successor when he left the post three years ago.

Flathead County has been beset by a large-scale COVID-19 outbreak for months, with more than 1,600 active cases in the community as of Tuesday and the county averaging more than 115 new cases per day since Nov. 1.

The current outbreak was triggered not long after Labor Day, and even as it has intensified, every attempt by St. James Robinson to implement harsher restrictions, particularly on public gatherings, has been rejected by the board of health. The board meetings themselves have grown more contentious over time as well, with some members openly questioning the motives of those who have voted down restrictions and Burg even calling for the removal of anti-mask activist Dr. Annie Bukacek, who was appointed to the board earlier this year.

The disagreements between the health officer and the board of health mirror the larger political divide over the management of COVID-19, a division that has spilled over into statewide and local disputes. On July 15, Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive mandating that face coverings be worn indoors but leaving enforcement up to local jurisdictions. When Flathead County’s outbreak worsened in October, Bullock specifically urged this county’s leaders to act, prompting a rebuke from the Flathead County Commissioners, who sent out a statement that, in part, offered support for residents who choose to ignore the governor’s directives.

When Flathead County prosecutors declined to act against businesses that were allegedly flaunting the mask mandate — businesses referred to the county attorney’s office by the health department — the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) swooped in, filing lawsuits against five local businesses. Their attempt to earn an injunction against those businesses was denied in Flathead County District Court, with the judge in that case warning DPHHS that proceeding any further could lead to financial compensation for the defendants. Those five businesses have also filed counterclaims that are currently pending.

And employees of the county health department have experienced some of that vitriol, too. Staff members have been routinely working seven days a week since the resurgence of the virus and felt the wrath of angry community members sick of quarantines and what they see as draconian restrictions on their freedom, some of whom have protested outside the health department building. All of that has led to a severe decline in morale among health department employees and a large exodus of veteran public health nurses and other officials who have left in the last several months, prompting the department to onboard dozens of temporary workers to advise the community and assist with contact tracing.

Such is the world Russell will enter, with a number of major projects also looming on the horizon. In addition to quelling the COVID-19 outbreak, Russell will oversee Flathead County’s deployment of a COVID-19 vaccine, help guide the Flathead Community Health Center’s transition to an independent facility, and reinvigorate a department battered by the pandemic.

“It’s been a journey but I’m glad we’ve come to this point in the journey,” board member Ronalee Skees said on Wednesday. “I think it’s going to be really good leadership and direction for us.”

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