The new head of the Flathead City-County Health Department (FCCHD) settled into his first day on the job Monday, faced with the daunting task of steadying a beleaguered workforce, turning public sentiment in favor of public health recommendations and delivering a just-developed vaccine to tens of thousands of weary residents as quickly as possible.
Thankfully for Joe Russell, he’s been here before.
The Flathead City-County Board of Health approved Russell’s hiring on Dec. 9, signing the 61-year-old to a one-year contract and ending a protracted search that included three candidates turning down the position, which had been filled on an interim basis since July.
Russell returns to the same job he held from 1997-2017, part of a 30-year career at FCCHD. He comes out of retirement well aware of the work ahead of him but confident in his ability to steer the county through what are hopefully the final months of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.
Russell’s agenda includes dozens of important tasks — notably how Flathead County will deploy a COVID-19 vaccine to the general population in the spring or early summer — but attempting to manage the ongoing COVID-19 crisis is at the top of the list. The pace of new confirmed cases in Flathead County has slowed slightly in December, down to about 101 new cases per day, but rampant community spread and concerns about hospital capacity are just as pressing now as they were in November, when more than 3,500 residents were infected.
The best way to slow the spread of the virus is by wearing a face covering, an action that has become a political hot button and prompted protests, legal challenges and widespread defiance of the statewide mask requirement. Russell, like his predecessor Tamalee St. James Robinson, is unequivocal when it comes to wearing a mask.
“This is not an imposition,” Russell said at the Beacon office last week, pointing to his own two-layer face covering fit snugly over his mouth and nose. “This is a personal responsibility that keeps people well. Let’s face it, we’re not taking away your civil liberties by asking you to wear a mask in public.”
The fight over masks has been raging in Flathead County for at least the last two months and ramped up after the Flathead County commissioners responded to criticism from Gov. Steve Bullock by endorsing residents who choose to ignore a mask mandate he imposed in July. County law enforcement and prosecutors have also thus far been unwilling or unable to enforce health directives and the board of health has failed to pass measures reducing the size of allowable public gatherings. Russell has no illusion that any orders he were to propose would be any more likely to be enforced or enacted.
“I have never been one to believe that an edict from the health officer was going to be everything,” he said. “We need people to believe in it … If they think it’s a hoax, they won’t put a mask on and they won’t social distance.”
“If the community starts calling people out that don’t wear masks, that’s a good thing. They’re tired of doing it because they have no support. They don’t even get an ‘atta boy’ for trying. We’ve got to change that. That’s a mentality we have to change in Flathead County … Making people change their attitudes is not easy and that’s going to be the biggest challenge.”
To get public buy-in, Russell is leaning on his credentials, experience and years as an educator to get through to enough of the population that has so far been resistant to masks, and starkly identifying the dangers of not masking up.
“There’s pretty good research out there that says if everyone would wear a mask we can reduce the mortality rate in the community by at least 20 percent,” Russell said. “So that would be my first message, put a mask on and 20 percent of the people that would die, will not die.”
“People have gotten complacent to the fact that we have people dying in this community because they get COVID.”
According to the latest data, 44 Flathead County residents have died from COVID-19 this year. With the Christmas holiday less than two weeks away, Russell and other health officials are concerned that another surge could be coming if people attend large gatherings like in a typical holiday season, especially if they commingle with those who have ignored things like wearing a mask and washing their hands.
“I think (the messaging) is spoken a lot. I’m not sure people hear it,” Russell said. “Because if they heard it and embraced the concept they’d put a mask on. It’s not the end of the world. You’re not losing your constitutional rights to freedom by putting a mask on. No one’s taking your rights away, we’re saying put a mask on and go do your thing.”
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