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Public health officials are cavalry in war against coronavirus
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Missoulian editorial

Public health officials are cavalry in war against coronavirus

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Montana has lost some of its best soldiers on the front lines in the war against the coronavirus, shot down by the very people they have been fighting to protect.

An alarming number of county health officials have been under attack in recent weeks, just when we need them most. As confirmed COVID-19 cases continue to stack up and the death toll steadily rises, they are our best hope for making sense of the latest information and advising prevention measures that best suit local needs.

Yet too many Montanans are not only not listening to this expert advice, they are openly hostile to it. It’s one thing to expect these public servants to protect us against a deadly disease. It’s another thing entirely to expect them to battle both a pandemic and their own neighbors.

Health officers and community health specialists from Mineral County to Central Montana have weathered personal insults and seen their professional expertise undermined by elected officials who continue playing politics with an issue that really ought to be considered apolitical. Doctors, nurses and infectious disease experts are having a tough enough time combating the rampant misinformation that spreads faster on social media than any virus. They should not find themselves at odds as well with elected leaders who ought to be helping to squash this virus so that Montana businesses and schools and can fully open as soon as safely possible.

We should all be on the same side, respecting and listening to the health experts whose job it is to guide us through public health threats precisely like the one we are experiencing now. And we should certainly give greater consideration to the education and experience of health care workers who have dedicated their careers and years of study to an issue with which the general public has only passing familiarity.

Unfortunately, too many people seem primed to give these credentials little thought at all. The community health specialist in Mineral County has received more than her fair share of insults, as has the Central Montana Helath District sanitarian who serves a total six rural counties: Fergus, Golden Valley, Judith Basin, Musselshell, Petroleum and Wheatland. The public health officer in Powell County resigned following a confrontation at the hospital where she was meeting with county commissioners, one of whom reportedly pressured her to change a declaration regarding the fair.

And most recently, Ravalli County’s public health officer for the past 13 years handed in her own letter of resignation in which she explained that she had been placed in “another no-win situation by the locally elected officials’ decision to disobey the Governor’s directives without my input."

Dr. Carol Calderwood’s announcement came shortly after Ravalli County Commissioners and the Ravalli County Sheriff’s Office announced that they would not enforce Gov. Steve Bullock’s July 15 directive mandating the use of face masks in counties with more than four active cases of COVID-19.

On Thursday, July 23, Ravalli County counted 10 total active cases. So far, it has tallied 51 confirmed cases, with 40 recoveries — and one death.

Some will dispute these numbers as overblown, of course, or even completely made up. They do not trust the testing methodology, or perhaps the tracking system, or maybe it’s the World Health Organization or the National Institutes of Health they view with suspicion.

Let’s be clear: A certain amount of skepticism is healthy. Science is a process and scientists, being human, are susceptible to human error. We in the journalism business are well are of these realities and actively encourage a healthy amount of skepticism, believing that pointing out pitfalls forces improvements that ultimately result in a stronger argument.

But what would drive someone to accuse their county health official of conspiring on a global scale to deliberately mislead the public? What could these public servants possibly have to gain by doing so?

No, these sorts of accusations are not healthy or helpful, and at a certain level they defy basic logic. When they devolve into personal attacks against people — our neighbors — who are doing a very difficult job already, they also defy basic decency.

Sadly, those of us in the news media understand all too well what our public health officials are going through. For years now, we have been under sustained attack, from the highest levels of government to the random-est keyboard warrior. In addition to trying to do good journalism under unprecedented conditions, we are also trying to create bulwarks against the floods of misinformation from sometimes very sophisticated and organized sources.

And even as we fight for facts and truth, we are sometimes accused of having ulterior motives and conspiring to harm the same communities in which we live, work and raise our families.

It’s not just the news media and county health officials advising the public to follow these simple public health recommendations. Last week, President Trump struck a blow against the forces working to politicize this pandemic, tweeting an image of himself wearing a face mask and writing that, “We are United in our effort to defeat the Invisible China Virus, and many people say that it is Patriotic to wear a face mask when you can’t socially distance. There is nobody more Patriotic than me, your favorite President!”

Hopefully his supporters in Montana who have resisted wearing a mask, viewing it as a purely political act, will take note of the President’s act of patriotism. Whether liberal or conservative, Libertarian or Green or Independent or otherwise, we share a common enemy in the coronavirus. Let’s remember we’re all fighting on the same side.

This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Editor Gwen Florio and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen. 

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