Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Russell a wise choice to lead health department

| December 6, 2020 12:00 AM

It’s been a tumultuous year for the Flathead City-County Health Department and the Board of Health as the two entities have been on the front line of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic here at home. And it’s no secret the situation is becoming dire. The interim public health officer is on her way out the door at the end of the year, the health board has been split on how to handle local restrictions to help lessen the spread of COVID as it rages in the Flathead, and then there’s the question of how the rollout of the vaccine will be done locally, given the leadership void.

When the Board of Health indicated this week it aims to bring former Public Health Officer Joe Russell out of retirement for a one-year stint to get the county through the pandemic, it was welcome news. We encourage the health board to do whatever it has to, contract-wise, to make this happen.

For a time like this, Russell is the man for the job. He lives here, apparently is readily available, and most importantly, he has 30 years of experience at the Flathead City-County Health Department, where he spent the last two decades of his career as the health administrator before retiring three years ago.

The Daily Inter Lake published a story in 2001 about Russell and his commitment to public health, and his words back then solidify the confidence we still have in his leadership.

“The real task here is to build a team, to create relationships,” Russell said during that interview. “I’ve expanded the mission statement to include a heavy emphasis on partnering, the teaming concept.”

He then went on to say the role of public health in any community is threefold — “assessment, policy development and assurance.”

Russell understands the Flathead community, and the relationship that needs to exist between the department and health board to get the job done. He worked hard to grow the public-health presence in Flathead County. The expansion of the health department at the Earl Bennett Building, and the creation of the Flathead Community Health Center were among his many accomplishments.

Those of us long enough in the tooth to remember his enterprising work and depth of knowledge in public-health issues, also will recall how knowledgeable he was about pandemic preparedness, should it ever be needed.

While we’re excited about the possibility of Russell taking the wheel of public health again, we also acknowledge the hard work of former Health Officer Hillary Hanson, who left earlier this year to take a job out of the area, and outgoing Interim Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson, who pointed to a “toxic environment” and lack of support from the county commissioners and Board of Health in her resignation letter.

We appreciate the efforts of everyone on the health department staff who is working tirelessly with contact tracing and doing their best amid the COVID crisis.

Time is wasting. COVID cases are still increasing here. We implore the powers that be to seal the deal with Russell. We need him on the job ASAP.