County Commissioners Appoint New Health Board Member

Veterinarian Jessica Malberg-Fiftal will take the seat vacated by former health officer Tamalee St. James Robinson

By Micah Drew
The Flathead City-County Health Department. Beacon File Photo

The Flathead County Commission at its Jan. 19 meeting unanimously voted to appoint Jessica Malberg-Fiftal, a Whitefish veterinarian with a background in public health, to the Flathead City-County Board of Health.

Malberg-Fiftal will fill the position previously held by Tamalee St. James Robinson, who resigned from her position on the board and her role as interim health officer in December.

Ten members of the community submitted applications for the open position, and all three members of the county commission said they had pared down the list to two candidates — Flathead native Malberg-Fiftal and Sharise Clostio, a home health nurse and midwife.

“It’s so nice to have such interest in our boards,” Commissioner Pam Holmquist said, noting that similar interest was not evident in the land-use board appointments also on the commissioners’ agenda. “We had quite a lineup [of] very qualified people.”

Holmquist said Malberg-Fiftal’s professional role as a veterinarian was an attractive area of expertise, and proved to be a deciding factor in the vote.

“Some people don’t understand that the health board doesn’t just deal with medical decisions — COVID-19 has highlighted that part of the board,” Holmquist said. “I’ve sat on the board for 10 years and we have never had a veterinarian on the board, so I was pleased that Malberg had that experience and could offer much needed expertise.”

Malberg-Fiftal completed her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University’s veterinary school in 2012, and also has a master’s of science degree in public health, a background that involved extensive training in epidemiology and biostatistics — a combination that she says uniquely qualifies her for the position.

“I will be able to provide educated assessments of the health of our animal population, assess for evidence of zoonotic infections, determine the risk for disease transmission and help to further guard the residents of Flathead County against communicable diseases,” Malberg-Fiftal wrote in her application.

The health board oversees the Flathead County Animal Shelter and deals with zoonotic disease concerns — diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans such as rabies — both of which Malberg-Fiftal has experience with. She adopted her first dog from the county’s animal shelter and has published a scientific peer-reviewed paper on the effectiveness of low-cost surveillance systems for detecting zoonotic diseases.

“I’ve been very impressed with how the animal shelter has been run and what they’re doing to provide the best care for the animals in their care,” Malberg-Fiftal said in an interview with the Beacon. “Hopefully I can be of service not only to the human residents of the Flathead Valley but to the animal companions we have here, too.”

Malberg-Fiftal’s term on the board of health will expire Dec. 31, 2021, as she is taking over an unexpired term from St. James Robinson, who resigned with a year left of her three-year term. Three other board members — Health Chair Bill Burg, Ronalee Skees and Dr. Pete Heyboer — will also have terms expire at the end of this year.

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