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We've never needed our local health experts more. And we've never treated them worse
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Missoulian editorial

We've never needed our local health experts more. And we've never treated them worse

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With health care a major ongoing concern — some might even say the biggest concern of the moment — it’s become abundantly clear just how crucial our local experts are for safeguarding public health.

The statewide mask mandate was lifted last week. However, businesses throughout Montana retain the right to ask customers to wear a face covering. No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service. 

And in Missoula, nothing has changed with regard to public health requirements. Masks are still required. Missoula residents and visitors alike should remain diligent in following local health orders. 

Our local health officials are the experts with the education, experience and connections to track emerging threats to public health, to separate the medical facts from pseudoscience fiction, and to share the best available information with the public to protect the health of vulnerable individuals and communities.

We’ve never needed them more. And we’ve never treated them worse.

A number of county health officers across Montana resigned last year after their recommendations were repeatedly undermined, ignored or outright opposed by the folks who should have been helping to enforce them.

That includes members of the Montana Legislature. Instead of backing up these beleaguered health professionals as they fight a deadly pandemic, legislators are considering laws that further tie their hands.

Late last month the Local Government Committee approved House Bill 121 on a 16-1 vote before forwarding it on to the Business and Labor Committee. This is the proposal that seeks to limit the authority of local boards of health. Rather than allow health experts to make important decisions during an emergency or disaster, that duty would fall on elected officials. Elected officials who may have many fine qualities, but who probably do not have detailed knowledge or special training on how to handle highly communicable diseases.

It would be a grave mistake to subvert the already limited authority of our essential public health servants whom, we should note, do not operate with impunity. They are largely appointed by and answerable to local elected officials. In Missoula, for example, a majority of the Health Board’s eight members are appointed to their three-year terms by county commissioners and city councilors. And the Health Board oversees the director of the Missoula City-County Health Department.

Missoula has only a few more months left with our health department director, Ellen Leahy, before she takes a long-planned and well-deserved retirement this summer following 30 years of service in the public health field. With a focus on vaccinating as many residents as possible, the next few months may see the end of the worst of the coronavirus pandemic. Until then, following local guidelines and regulations remains a matter of life and death.

Last week Gov. Greg Gianforte followed through on his promise to lift the statewide mask mandate once the Legislature presented him with a bill shielding businesses from potential liability if their employees or customers contract COVID-19. Again, the mandate, as well as other important health rules, remains in place in Missoula County.

This would be a good time to give thanks and show support for those individuals and businesses who are making every effort to comply with local health regulations. They are doing the right thing to protect their customers and their community from a serious health risk, even without the risk of liability to themselves.

And it’s a good time to express appreciation for the health officials who are doing their best to protect their communities from a virus that has killed more than 1,300 Montanans in less than one year. It’s a safe bet most of them never thought their jobs would become fodder for political attacks.

HB 121 is sponsored by Hamilton Republicans Rep. David Bedey and Sen. Jason Ellsworth. Sen. Ellsworth happens to be chair of the legislative COVID-19 response panel. Both are from Ravalli County, where the public health officer of 13 years turned in her resignation last summer.

In a letter to Ravalli County Commissioners, Dr. Carol Calderwood stated she was forced to resign after being put in “another no-win situation by the locally elected officials’ decision to disobey the Governor’s directives without my input." She was responding to an announcement from Ravalli County commissioners and the local Sheriff’s Office that they would not enforce the mask mandate despite the rising number of COVID-19.

Apparently, in some Montana counties, it makes little difference whether there is a statewide mask requirement in effect. These are the counties where health officers need more support from their legislators, not less.

Last week, on the same day Gov. Gianforte signed the liability act into law, the fourth case of COVID was confirmed in a Montana legislator so far this session. And the day before that, Lewis and Clark public health officer Drenda Niemann sent a letter to legislative leaders relaying concerns from Helena businesses that at least some lawmakers were ignoring both state and local health laws.

“We have had several businesses call frustrated and concerned regarding actions of some legislators,” Niemann wrote. “Reports include entering businesses without a face covering and disregard for business staff’s polite requests to don a mask while in the business per state directive and local rule.”

Montana’s legislators should not be proposing legislation to make health officers’ jobs more difficult. If they are truly relying on Montanans’ compassion and care for one another to follow best health practices, even if they are not willing to enforce these practices through legislation, they at least should be willing to lead by example.

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

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