Health Board turns down increased restrictions related to COVID

by JEREMY WEBER
Daily Inter Lake | October 16, 2020 9:00 AM

In a split 5-3 vote Thursday, the Flathead City-County Board of Health opted to scrap plans for a Health Officer Order that would have put more restrictions on the size of public gatherings in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19 in Flathead County.

After nearly three hours of public comment and board discussion via Zoom, the board made the decision to take no action on a proposal that would have required organizers of events expecting 50 to 499 people to submit a detailed plan outlining protective measures and environmental controls to reduce the risk of disease transmission at least 14 days prior to the event or gathering.

The order would have banned gatherings of more than 500 people in the county.

Prior to the agenda being approved for the meeting, the board removed from the agenda the portion of the proposal that would have added tighter restrictions on area bars, restaurants and churches. The proposed order would have limited social gatherings to no more than 25 people, regardless of the ability to socially distance, and would have reduced capacity to bars and restaurants and churches to 25%.

By removing that part of the proposal from the agenda, no board discussion was held on those proposed restrictions.

Health Board members Annie Bukacek, Bill Burg, Pamela Holmquist, Ardis Larsen and Ronalee Skees voted to take no action on the remaining portion of the Health Department’s proposal regarding crowd sizes, while board members Peter Heyboer, Roger Noble and Kyle Waterman did not favor that course of action.

The decision comes on the same day Flathead County saw 79 more new cases reported with more than 1,200 of its 2,286 total cases labeled as active. Hospitals in the county also currently report 29 patients hospitalized with the virus.

“Our office is drowning in COVID cases right now,” interim County Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson told the board after the decision. “We have 29 temporary staff and 11 regular staff and we are losing people every day that have been at the health department for years. This is a really, really hard job dealing with something that hasn’t just been going on for a week or month. We have been dealing with this for six months.”

She went on to say that she would like to see her department be able to complete contact tracing on new cases within 24 hours, but staff shortages and 80 to 100 new cases each day has led to the task taking two to three days, leading to an increase of the spread of the virus throughout the community.

“We will do the best we can, but this is an impossible job. It’s incredibly hard on our employees and we have been put in an impossible position,” Robinson said.

The decision to not pursue the proposed health order came after several board members voiced concerns about the transparency of their decisions and a need to be able to justify the numbers used as the cutoff limit for gatherings, while board member Annie Bukacek voiced her opinion that COVID-19 is not as serious a threat as people may believe.

Bukacek, who attributes the rising number of cases to a rise in testing numbers, argued that the mortality numbers do not back up the need for increased restrictions.

“If you look at the death rate in Montana based on the government CDC (Centers for Disease Control) data, it’s a 0.2 percent death rate. That is two per 10,000 cases, and that’s if you believe the CDC’s data, which not all of us do. Statistically, for practical purposes, COVID in Montana has 100 percent survival rate,” she said. “I’m not saying that the people who die don’t matter, but in terms of an imminent threat, I’ve never seen anything with such a low death rate.”

IN HIS report to the board, Kalispell Regional Healthcare CEO Craig Lambrecht reported that the hospitalization rate for COVID cases in Flathead County is around 7%, with a mortality rate of between 0.5 and 1%, but his biggest worry right now is keeping the area hospitals staffed.

“Caring for COVID patients is very labor-intensive, so our biggest issue right now is the stress on our staff. We do have adequate beds right now, the issue is staffing for the beds,” he said. “We’re busy, it’s crazy and the stress on our staff is real. We are just going to plan on this continuing for the long haul.”

While the board made the decision to take no action on the current proposed health order, that does not mean that a similar order will not come before the board again soon. Several members voiced concern that action should be taken sooner rather than later.

“I am concerned that we are passing this just to take action down the road. I would encourage us to come back together within short order with an updated proposal with all of our concerns addressed so we can submit it for another vote. I don’t think we can wait until next month, given the growth of activity in our valley,” said Peter Heyboer, who voted against the motion to dismiss the proposed order.

“I do hope that we will come together again soon to take action. We are being asked to take action and we are in a moment of crisis,” board member Kyle Waterman added.

The board is not scheduled to meet again until mid-November.