Flathead County’s multi-year search for a health officer is ongoing after the Flathead City-County Board of Health on April 21 opted to postpone discussion that would have led to a recommendation to county commissioners either in support of or against a candidate.
The candidate, Michael Chambers, is currently the administrator for the health department in Macon County, Mo. Chambers went through two public interview sessions last week conducted separately by the county commissioners and the board of health. The interviews included questions about vaccine mandates, health mandates generally, outreach to the public and stakeholders, and differences between the Macon County health department and Flathead County’s.
In bringing the motion forward to remove the candidate recommendation discussion from the Flathead City-County Board of Health meeting agenda last week, Chair Roger Noble said he wanted to be respectful of Chambers’ privacy as the board reviewed his qualifications. When the board does meet to discuss its recommendation, it will now do so in a closed executive session.
“I put myself in his shoes and I asked myself ‘Would I want to be evaluated for a job during a public meeting, and my answer was unequivocally ‘no,’” Noble said.
Noble also said he felt it important that a physician participate in the interview process. After Dr. Annie Bukacek’s resignation, the board only has one physician remaining. Dr. Pete Heyboer was absent from the interview and meeting and Noble said Heyboer would be available early this week to meet with Chambers.
County commissioners have indicated they would wait for a recommendation from the board of health before making a decision about whether to hire Chambers for the job.
In explaining his view of a health officer’s role, Chambers told the commissioners that it’s “to make sure the programs and processes are in place to make sure the community has the opportunity to be healthy and stay healthy.”
Following a decision from Missouri Gov. Mike Parsons that the state was now in an endemic phase of the pandemic, the Macon County Health Department has curtailed contact tracing, and is working on a strategy to get back to normal operations, Chambers said.
Chambers told the commissioners that his first six months in Flathead County would be spent getting caught up to speed. Macon County’s Health Department serves a county with a population of 15,000 people, and Chambers oversees a staff a fraction of the size of Flathead County’s health department, although he said they sometimes work in collaboration with some of the 16 other counties in the region. There are programs, including environmental ones, which Chambers said his agency doesn’t have.
“I would be on a very hard learning curve to begin with,” he said. “I would be spending probably the first six months getting to know people, getting to know programs, getting to know the problems that they have and what they need from me.”
He acknowledged at one point having doubts about taking on the job of Flathead County health officer, but said he believes he can do the job and do it well.
During his interviews Chambers highlighted a willingness to listen and collaborate, and pointed to marketing and outreach efforts in his county predating the pandemic. Those programs he said helped lead to a childhood vaccination clinic, and flu clinics every year, and helped with coordination when the pandemic arrived.
A portrait also emerged of a northern Missouri County in which divisions about the pandemic led to frustration over public health strategies and guidance. Chambers noted that public health has been hammered over inconsistencies, but said he has tried to do the best he can with the best information available. He explained how Macon County’s eight school systems became a focal point for some of those frustrations. To create some sort of consistency, Chambers said they held a large public meeting featuring school boards and anyone else from the public who wanted to attend. The meeting brought in about 100 people.
“It was a good meeting at the very end,” he said, adding that they were able to come to some agreements and an action plan. “The process to get there was ugly.”
Anger was largely focused on contact tracing and isolation policies. Chambers said there were allowances that couldn’t be made, but that they did settle on a policy that in contact tracing cases would allow for masking to be taken into consideration when deciding about quarantining policies.
Chambers said that his health department did not issue mandate orders, but did follow guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state agencies. One question from the board of health was about how Chambers views vaccine mandates in long-term care facilities. Those vaccine mandates in Montana have come from the federal level and have been tied to federal funding. Montana also passed legislation in the last legislative session that would prohibit discrimination based on vaccine status.
“I have always believed that vaccines are a choice, and that hasn’t changed with COVID,” Chambers said. “It’s my experience that the residents of a long-term care facility are very pro vaccine. They’re the older generation who went through polio. They’re the ones who know that vaccines save lives.”
Following up, Columbia Falls board representative Don Barnhart said “So you’re kind of saying you wouldn’t really push on a mandate, but you would have another way for those folks to continue.”
“We have, yes,” Chambers said. “That would be obviously wear a mask, take other protections, the same things we’ve been pushing in public health for the last two years.”
After commissioners asked about communicating with the public, Chambers said sometimes it’s as simple as listening. In one instance he said that a community member who was against vaccines felt like the health department wasn’t doing enough to promote other ways people could protect themselves. Chambers said that conversation eventually led to a partnership with a physician who offered some advice on how people could try to protect themselves using vitamins and other regimens.
While Chambers did not specify who the physician was, or when they partnered with them, the county health department did share a post on its Facebook page in December 2020 titled “Supplements to help improve immune system against COVID-19.” Information in the post was attributed to Dr. Jamie Kauffman.
An informational poster included in the post, which was published right around the time the U.S. COVID-19 vaccination program began its rollout, begins with the statement that hand washing, mask wearing, and physically distancing are the best ways to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
It goes on to say that some vitamins, minerals and supplements may help improve immune protection, and that people should speak with a primary care provider before starting any supplements. In the months since then, the Macon County Health Department has continued to promote the COVID-19 vaccine as effective at reducing negative health effects and hospitalizations caused by COVID-19 infections.
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