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Commissioners must make wise Health Board appointment

| January 17, 2021 12:00 AM

The American Public Health Association was founded by a group of physicians in 1872 at a time when scientific advances were helping reveal the causes of communicable diseases, according to the organization’s website. Since its inception, the association has remained focused on its steadfast mission to improve health care for everyone.

For decades, public health officials have helped communities navigate deadly outbreaks through various means. One way is by exercising their legal authority to implement control measures such as requiring certain people to isolate or closing down infectious spaces.

This was true for the influenza pandemic of 1918 and it has been true for the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as well. And because public health officials hold the power they do, it makes sense to have an authoritative body of some kind to watchdog those decisions.

For the Flathead City-County Health Department, that body is its Board of Health, members of which are appointed by the three commissioners.

Our elected officials should make these difficult decisions with the pillars of public health in mind, and they have an opportunity to do that now as they sort through applications from 10 individuals that have expressed interest in occupying the board’s recently vacated seat.

Based on their letters of intent, each candidate would bring his or her own unique skill set to the group. They offer backgrounds in health care, business management, marketing and more.

Health Officer Joe Russell reviewed each of the applications himself and told the Inter Lake the commissioners have a tough choice to make. It is Russell’s preference that they choose someone with a background in public health, although history has taught us that isn’t the first quality the commissioners might look for.

In 2019, they chose Ardis Larsen, office manager of an engineering firm, and Dr. Annie Bukacek, an outspoken vaccine critic, to replace two doctors that had served on the board for a decade.

Since they joined the board, many have called for the removal of Dr. Annie Bukacek specifically. She has actively pushed against public health measures by spearheading anti-mask rallies, casting doubt over COVID-19 death numbers and voting against health officer orders intended to slow the spread of the virus. All of this has contributed to a tangible division among health board members at a time when unity is of the utmost importance.

While it’s likely the commissioners did not foresee these events unfolding when they first appointed Bukacek, we hope they have looked back at the decision with a critical eye. This includes newly elected Brad Abell, who was not commissioner when Bukacek was appointed.

We agree with our elected officials when they say diversity on a board is important. But when a public health crisis is unfolding, we need a board that will make decisions based on the best available science and leaders that will unite our community, not drive a wedge in it.

In the coming days, we urge the commissioners to go over each application with a fine-toothed comb. And before making their final decision, we encourage them to speak with public health officials about the type of individual they believe would be the strongest addition to the board.