Sanders County health officer resigns to ease conflict
The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is seen in an electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020. (National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Rocky Mountain Laboratories via AP)
| September 20, 2021 3:25 PM
HELENA (AP) — The public health officer in a politically conservative county in northwestern Montana has resigned his post to ease what his resignation letter called "the strife and conflict coming from a minority of people objecting" to his recommendations in responding to the coronavirus.
A member of the public blamed the health officer for his wife's recent death due to Covid-19.
Nick Lawyer, a physician assistant at the hospital in Plains, said he submitted his letter of resignation on Friday at the request of Sanders County commissioners. He released a copy of the letter on social media. Two commissioners said he offered to resign and they accepted it.
His resignation came two days after Gerald "Frenchy" Cuvillier called Lawyer a "petty tyrant," during a meeting of the county commissioners and said Lawyer's "rules of protocol just cost my wife her life."
Cuvillier complained his wife was not given the antiparasitic medication ivermectin or the malaria treatment hydroxychloroquine, and wasn't treated with monoclonal antibodies. If she had, "she would be alive and well today," Cuvillier said.
"I had to watch her die slowly and in agony," he said.
When he finished, Cuvillier threw his letter on the floor and walked out, Commissioner Anthony Cox said Monday.
Neither ivermectin nor hydroxychloroquine are approved to treat or prevent Covid-19.
Beverly Cuvillier died on Sept. 7. She was 82, according to her obituary.
Monoclonal antibodies are typically available to people who have tested positive for Covid-19 and are at high risk of developing severe symptoms, but have not yet been admitted to the hospital.
Officials in Sanders County are struggling to navigate the Covid-19 pandemic as cases surge and some residents don't believe the vaccines are safe, oppose wearing masks and think unproven drugs and supplements can prevent or treat the respiratory virus.
The county commissioners and the county Board of Health have endured several meetings where the room was packed and people were angry with health recommendations to prevent Covid-19, Cox said. The three commissioners are members of the health board.
With Lawyer's resignation, "hopefully it will quiet down some," Cox said, noting the Board of Health has nothing to do with the medical care people receive.
Commissioner Carol Brooker said Monday that one issue with Lawyer was that he used his title as county health officer in submitting a letter to the editor to several regional newspapers urging people to get the Covid-19 vaccine and explaining why the vaccine is safe and effective. However, he did not clear the letter with the county Board of Health first, Brooker said.
"It is well within my responsibility and duty to speak and work to educate our community about how to prevent and contain the spread of Covid-19 (and other illnesses) — and I will continue to do so regardless," of his resignation, Lawyer wrote.
The county is now looking for a new public health officer.
Elsewhere in the state, a surge in cases that began in mid-July continues, with 1,619 new cases reported in testing done from Friday through Sunday.
Missoula County is reporting record hospitalizations and active cases, while the Board of Health in Ravalli County voted last week to use gentler language in letters it sends to people who test positive for Covid-19.
Missoula County reported there were 50 people hospitalized with Covid-19 on Monday and 1,386 residents are known to currently have the virus.
"This is the absolute worst we have seen it since the pandemic started," said Covid-19 incident commander Cindy Farr. "We cannot continue in this direction for the safety of the community."
Missoula County has the highest rate of vaccination in the state with 64% of those eligible being fully vaccinated, but the rate "is nowhere near a level that would be considered herd immunity," Health Officer D'Shane Barnett said in a statement.
In Hamilton, Ravalli County officials heard three hours of public comment on Friday before changing the wording in a letter the health department sends to people who test positive for Covid-19 from giving "isolation instructions," to giving "isolation recommendations," the Ravalli Republic reports.
Changes made by the 2021 Legislature mean health boards "no longer have the authority to quarantine close contacts that might be able to spread communicable diseases," said Public Health Director Tiffany Webber.
Lawmakers curtailed the power of local health officers to implement rules such as mask mandates and limits on gathering sizes
"We know everyone has free will and this is not a mandate," board member Katie Scholl said.
Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte has said he will not issue any mandates related to Covid-19, but encourages people to talk to their health care provider about getting vaccinated.
Montana has reported 1,887 deaths due to Covid-19, including at least 80 in September. At least 358 people were hospitalized Monday and some hospitals have requested and received help from the National Guard.