The entire four-person staff of a county health department in northwest Montana resigned this week.
According to the Great Falls Tribune, they cited a lack of support and resources from local officials as the department works to protect the public from COVID-19.
The Pondera County Health Department resignations don’t surprise Nancy Lachapelle, who runs COVID-19 response in neighboring Chouteau County.
“We definitely feel for the Pondera County Health Department because they were getting, from what we understand, no support from their county officials at all,” Lachapelle said.
Lachapelle said pushback from local leaders is just added stress as they try to reign in a surge in COVID-19 cases and run other programs to address issues like hunger. In Choteau County, she added, some commissioners dismiss the threat of the virus, but at least support her department’s efforts. She said the local sheriff, though, is actively working against their recommendations, telling community members that he doesn’t believe in this pandemic.
“They will not support any of our directives or anything, they won’t help us enforce them, they won’t do anything for us,” Lachapelle said.
Christine Porter, an associate professor of public health at the University Wyoming, said the loss of an entire health department’s staff is especially challenging for rural areas facing growing COVID-19 numbers right now.
“In more populated areas, there’s other forms of public health infrastructure, associated sometimes with hospitals, with not-for-profits,” which doesn’t always exist in rural areas, she said.
Montana, like much of the Mountain West, is facing record hospitalizations and fatalities due to COVID-19.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.