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County health officer to resign at end of year

| November 28, 2020 6:00 PM

Flathead City-County Health Department Interim Public Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson resigned from her position Friday, citing inaction and a general lack of support from elected county officials and the Board of Health. Her resignation letter, addressed to the Flathead County Commissioners and the Flathead City-County Board of Health, said she will work through the end of the year when her contract expires.

Robinson stated it has become “clearly evident” during the past several months that actions of the commissioners and board have “been at cross purposes with the goal of maintaining our county’s public health.”

Robinson noted spiking COVID-19 case numbers and virus-related deaths have been met with “nearly complete inaction,” which she emphasized has jeopardized the health of the community. Flathead County had more than 2,000 active cases Saturday and was nearing 40 deaths, according to state data.

“The Commissioner’s and Board’s failure to enact or publically support even the most basic recommendations regarding mask use, along with any type of recommended group meeting restrictions, has not only increased public health risk, it has demonstrated a clear lack of support for the county health department,” Robinson wrote. “As a result, my department has been continuously understaffed in key positions which makes it difficult to respond in a timely manner and mitigate rapidly rising numbers of COVID-19 in our community.”

Over the past several months, the Board of Health has voted against certain COVID-19 restrictions, including a recent order that would have capped large indoor gatherings at 500 individuals. The order failed on a tie vote on Nov. 2.

In addition, the commissioners have chosen not to approve various requests from the Health Department that emerged after staff became overwhelmed with tasks related to case investigations, contact tracing and data gathering. As one example, in July they denied a request to extend compensatory time for employees at the department so that time didn’t expire before they had a chance to use it.

Robinson added that the “toxic environment” that is being fostered between the commissioners, Board of Health and Health Department is making it difficult to recruit an incoming health officer. Robinson took over at the start of summer after the former public health officer resigned shortly after the start of the pandemic. The board has now failed twice to obtain a permanent, qualified individual for the position.

Robinson finished her letter by referencing deep division among some of the group’s members, and implored stakeholders to focus on some of the core missions of public health after her departure.

“It’s clear that underlying motivation by several members of your groups is more closely aligned with ideological biases than the simple desire to do what’s best for the health of the community. “It was always my goal that any of my requests or restrictions would have as limited an impact on the individual rights of our county citizens and on our local economy as possible, while at the same time minimizing overall health risks,” she wrote. “My primary focus was to enable our schools to remain open, lesen burden on medical resources, and help keep businesses open. I encourage you to work towards that goal, and I wish you the best in that endeavor.”

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 758-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com