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Ravalli County public health officer resigns
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Ravalli County public health officer resigns

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Ravalli County Administration Office

Ravalli County Administration Office

Dr. Carol Calderwood gave Ravalli County Commissioners a letter of resignation over the weekend as the county's public health officer of 13 years, stating she feels she has been placed in “another no-win situation by the locally elected officials’ decision to disobey the Governor’s directives without my input."

The resignation letter followed a July 15 directive from Gov. Steve Bullock requiring indoor mask wearing for every county with more than four active cases of COVID-19 and an announcement one day later from the Ravalli County Commissioners and Sheriff's Office stating business owners could decide whether to require masks.

“Private business owners may choose to enforce the Governor’s directive,” said the joint press release. “Everyone has the right and ability to shop or patronize businesses they feel comfortable in. Criminal citations will not be issued for violations of the mask directive.”

In a phone call Monday, Calderwood said the situation at Ravalli County hasn’t been too strained or politically divided. Ravalli County counted three new cases for a total of 13 as of Monday.

“I respect the Commissioners, and their outlook is different from mine, and we’ve been able to work through that,” Calderwood said. “(But) I feel like making it optional on their end is not compliant with the governor’s intent. Also, the change in the science with studies and where we are at in the pandemic that if any time is going to make a difference, now is the time. I don’t want to go head to head with good leaders, but I had to make a stand.”

Her announcement comes on the heels of the resignation of the public health officer in Powell County following a clash over coronavirus restrictions. Calderwood said Monday the state health department informed her "several" other public health officers had also tendered resignations, a situation she believes is likely the result of stress, burnout or "the right time for change."

“There’s just kind of combat fatigue, and it is time to reorganize the groups or leaders. That may be what others are feeling too," Calderwood said.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services confirmed Monday other public health officers had resigned in recent months, in particular from Flathead and Toole counties, and said the counties would need to provide the specific reasons for their departures. Local health officers' duties include protecting the public from communicable diseases and managing important public health concerns.

***

Ravalli County Commission Chair Chris Hoffman said Monday he doesn’t understand the reason Calderwood was frustrated enough to resign. However, he said several weeks ago the commission discussed that County Sanitarian John Palacio, who works in the health department, would be the next appointed health officer should a replacement become necessary.

“My understanding of the appointment was to have someone to cover the position if Dr. Calderwood was unavailable, out of town, etc.,” Hoffman said. “We were getting into a lot of time without a break for her, and so the board was trying to build in backup for her.”

The sanitarian is an environmental health specialist charged with a range of responsibilities including taking care of flooding, emergency preparedness, food safety, household hazardous waste, air quality, outdoor burning, septic systems, solid waste disposal, water quality and groundwater and wells.

“A doctor is preferable, but his education and training will do for the time being,” Hoffman said of the sanitarian. “Carol has assured me that she will continue to be available for advice.”

Hoffman also said he feels the commissioners have supported the public health department throughout the pandemic. Although most infected people recover from the novel coronavirus, COVID-19 has resulted in 140,922 deaths in the U.S. alone since March, according to the Johns Hopkins University and Medicine Coronavirus Resource Center.

“We’ve just about given carte blanche on resources they say they need to combat this thing,” Hoffman said.

At the same time, he acknowledged there have been some disagreements. He said the health and safety section of Montana Code Annotated, Code 50, makes it nearly impossible to not have disagreements because the code "almost completely has the commissioners abdicate their responsibilities in a time of crisis."

"Have we questioned the data? Have we questioned the numbers? Absolutely, our community is asking those questions,” Hoffman said.

Sheriff Steve Holton earlier described the approach to enforcement in Ravalli County: “If a business owner or staff asks someone to wear a mask while they are in a business and they refuse, they are trespassing. I will enforce that. On the same token, if someone goes into a business where no one is wearing a mask, they can choose not to patronize that business. … We will keep the peace and enforce private property rights.”

The Governor's Office has encouraged education and warnings and reserving penalties for only egregious cases and repeat violators.

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In a Facebook post Saturday, former Ravalli County public health nurse LuAnn Burgmuller said the resignation of the county health officer was a sad day for Ravalli County.

“Dr. Calderwood is one of the most dedicated, ethical leaders I have ever had the pleasure to work with,” Burgmuller said. “Her commitment to this community has been beyond reproach over these many years. Now she is being vilified for trying to keep our residents healthy and alive. It is impossible to deliver best practices when not supported and being publicly defied by elected officials. We have lost someone with ethics and integrity…two qualities which are in short supply these days.”

Burgmuller had retired, but in March she stepped back into Public Health to help with the pandemic. She resigned on Sunday. On Monday she said her Facebook post was simply to support Calderwood.

“She tried to do the right thing, and she doesn’t have a political agenda, she is a medical person trying to do the best,” Burgmuller said. “Ethically she can’t defy the law.”

In a press release about her departure, Calderwood said it is the right time for her to step down and focus on her clinical practice.

“Sincere thanks to the Elected Officials, to Board of Health members, and to my numerous other county colleagues who have worked tirelessly with me through the beginning stages of the COVID pandemic,” she said. “I am confident that our combined efforts, along with State and national actions, have slowed the spread and brought our community time to establish plans and to accumulate supplies. Systems are now in place for reasonable way forward, even if our teams may shift.”

In Calderwood's resignation letter to the commissioners, she said she disagrees with not enforcing mask wearing locally because “masks are easy to use, safe, cheap, and (now studies show) effective."

“I would have liked to have stayed on as HO at least long enough to see us through this whole pandemic,” Calderwood said. “I am extremely proud of impacts I have had, independently and as part of the teams we built in the county and the hospital, through the early phases of this crisis up to this point.”

In a separate release from the local health department, Calderwood said she believes the worst is yet to come with the pandemic, and “our combined social actions are probably at their most critical.”

“Therefore, I do personally support the Governor's Masking Directive, in part to increase chances that businesses may stay open," she said.

She said she will shift her focus to contributions through the hospital but is “available to give medical advice to the County Public Health Nursing Office as long as needed." 

***

In a statement Monday, Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Sheila Hogan said she appreciates the effort by local county health departments and law enforcement to implement the recent directive requiring face coverings.

“DPHHS knows how businesses have acted quickly to communicate this change to their customers,” Hogan said. “Certainly, there have been challenges along the way as we all work to fight COVID-19. But, local communities have done a great job working together. Until there is a vaccine, one of the most important public health prevention tools is to wear a mask in order to protect the health and safety of all Montanans.”  

DPHHS Public Information Officer Jon Ebelt said any directive takes time to implement.

“The directive was only recently announced on July 15, and local jurisdictions are working hard to implement it,” Elbelt said in an email. “Governor Bullock is urging local public health agencies and law enforcement to focus their enforcement of this directive on education, providing warnings and education about the risk of transmission, while reserving the imposition of penalties, trespass enforcement, and other formal enforcement mechanisms for only the egregious, repeat violations that put the public at risk.”

The Ravalli County Health Board will meet July 28 and would take any formal action on Calderwood's resignation letter at that time. The board is made up of the following members: Commissioner Jeff Burrows, Katie Scholl, Dr. Michael Turner, ​​Roger De Haan and ​​Dr. Wayne Chilcote.

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