Season 2, Ep. 4: Surviving pandemic strife
It’s not surprising for Montanans to have plenty of political disagreements. What’s more uncommon? Neighbors whispering about each other at grocery stores and disrupting entire public meetings with passionate tirades. Welcome to the era of COVID-19, when debates about public health, personal liberties and science have reached a fever pitch. Those disagreements are tugging at tightly-knit towns and counties, making some residents wonder how their communities will survive in more ways than one.
Read more about the Ravalli County Board of Public Health’s COVID-19 policies here.
Check out more Kaiser Health News reporting here on public health officials and new pandemic-era regulation passed in different states.
Nick Mott This is Shared State. I'm Nick Mott. This season, we're telling stories about Montanans working through political conflicts.
Some of the biggest disagreements in our society lately have come out of the coronavirus pandemic lockdown rules, mask requirements, arguments over vaccines. Imagine a bunch of tiny cracks in a car's windshield. COVID 19 was the bad weather that made them all expand. The first part of this episode comes to us from Kathryn Houghton, Montana correspondent at Kaiser Health News. Last fall, she spent a lot of time on the phone with local health officials to hear how their jobs have changed nearly two years into the pandemic.
Katheryn Houghton So one of the people that I talked with is Dr. Laurel Desnick. She's the health officer in Park County in south-central Montana. You know, pre-pandemic, really, the typical for her was weighing in on issues like water safety or helping with regular child vaccinations and screenings. But lately she's been getting attention like she's really never had before. I mean, even her commute home has felt different.
Laurel Desnick On my way home, I ride my bike past this house, and this woman would just scream out her window. You know, 'no one likes you, go away.' And I'd say 'alright.' I mean, what do you do with that?
Nick Mott Yeah, I live in Livingston and I see Laurel pretty often. Whenever I do there's like, almost like there's, like, these hushed, like, 'Laurel Desnick's here.' It feels like people are very aware of who she is and her role in the community.
Katheryn Houghton Oh, she feels that too. She's talked about going to the grocery store and being like, 'are they looking at me or am I making that up?'
Nick Mott Yeah, I can't imagine that's something she expected when she took this position to begin with.
Katheryn Houghton Mmm mmm. Livingston's been her home for almost 50 years.
Laurel Desnick This community actually, in many ways, sent me to medical school with the expectation that I would come back.
Katheryn Houghton But now it's not just home, it's, it's also this place that she has been called a tyrant. She's been called a dictator. I mean, she's heard the good stuff, too. She's gotten the thank-you notes or food delivered to the health department during the really hard weeks. But the bad has kind of left her with this new feeling like she's in a fishbowl that really never used to be there, and everything she's going to say will get scrutinized.
Laurel Desnick I mean, it almost sort of feels like you're being watched. It's weird. It's not a good feeling.
Katheryn Houghton Part of that comes from Montana's lawmakers passing some of the strictest laws in the nation this last legislative session, which really scaled back what local health leaders can do. So, for example, even if the virus is spreading far and fast, local health boards can't limit crowd sizes.
Nick Mott So basically it limited the tools in the toolbox that public health officials have to address the pandemic.
Katheryn Houghton Some of the sharper tools, yeah. And I think to Laurel, though, there's this other shift that is being felt. Public health advice used to feel pretty straightforward, right? You give recommendations based on research, which is backed by medical experts. But now for her, it feels like that process is skewed in these really public debates with people who just don't trust that baseline. And so the whole thing feels like a pressure cooker.
Laurel Desnick We have good evidence. We know what works, and yet we have to distort all of that somehow to meet this new way of conversation, and it is exhausting
Katheryn Houghton For the people who are pushing back, I think there's some concern that they're getting left out of really important decisions. But they're also scared in a way. They're scared that government is becoming too intrusive and that real harm can come from a vaccine pushed by a government they just don't trust. It's an awkward position because local public health has not been viewed on the side of big government, for the most part. And so they're kind of in a new position where they're working to gain trust, where they felt like they already had it. I think they don't want to push so hard that people stop trusting them for the basics that people stop trusting them in the long term.
Nick Mott If this all comes back to trust, how are public health workers trying to not alienate the people they're supposed to serve on a day to day basis?
Katheryn Houghton I mean, for starters, they don't want to pick fights they can't win, or at least they feel like they can't win. I think part of that is learning to live with COVID. I mean, there's some uncomfortable acceptance that the perfect end game isn't going to happen. And in some places, it may not even get close. Another person I talked with was Sue Good. She's the top health official in McCone County in eastern Montana. And again, she's a longtime local. She knows her community.
Sue Good I would say overall, it's a very conservative community. We have more churches than bars. I'm a full blood southern Baptist girl myself.
Katheryn Houghton As her community was getting ready for winter, just fewer than 30 percent of those old enough to get vaccinated against COVID, were, which Sue told me is actually more than she had expected.
Nick Mott But that's still a super low number, right compared to the nation or even Montana?
Katheryn Houghton Oh yeah, and Sue acknowledges that. But I mean, she's really proud of what the health department has done, and they're not giving up, as far as they're still going to offer COVID vaccines, they're still going to do contact tracing, and they do that knowing that people aren't always going to listen. And that reality is hard.
Sue Good I'm not saying I'm not exhausted, and I'm not saying I'm not sad and I'm not saying I don't cry about it, but I can't make anybody do anything. Everybody knows what COVID is. Everybody has the information out there. If they choose to not follow the recommendations and the guidance, that's their problem. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it anymore.
Nick Mott In a lot of Montana towns and communities, COVID-19 has fractured trust between local health officials and the people they serve. Those cracks in the windshield only seem to be getting bigger, making it really hard to see the road ahead.
For the rest of this episode. We're going to see how that conflict is playing out in one specific part of the state Ravalli County in southwest Montana, part of an area known as the Bitterroot Valley. Reporter Alex Sakariassen is going to take us there.
All right, Alex. What about the Bitterroot in particular sort of grabbed your interest?
Alex Sakariassen This is a stronghold for some of Montana's most conservative viewpoints. You see a lot of folks who are openly wearing sidearms at meetings. You'd see in election years a lot of campaign signs, a lot of mention of abortion and religious freedom, and a lot of mention of the Constitution. Things like autonomy and privacy, Second Amendment rights, These aren't just, like, things that you see on bumper stickers or in campaign signs. These are, like, deeply held, deeply important to people.
Nick Mott Are there any leaders in the Bitterroot in particular who are really pushing this kind of ideology?
Alex Sakariassen Yeah, Senator Theresa Manzella. She's been serving in the Legislature for several sessions now. Lot of people in the Bitterroot love her and her politics. She stands for everything that they believe in.
Theresa Manzella For me, it's, I stand on God-given Constitutional individual rights, and that's, that's where I draw the line.
Alex Sakariassen I caught up with her a few months back at a parental rights rally in Helena, and she was talking about her opposition to masks in schools at that point. But she also got into a lot more.
Theresa Manzella If masks work, then feel free to wear that, that's your choice. That's your choice as an individual. But don't step on my right to breathe freely. I'm not going to buy into the collectivism. I'm just not.
Nick Mott So, "don't step on my right to breathe freely." That's like, literally, 'don't tread on me.'
Alex Sakariassen Yeah. And, you know, since the pandemic hit, there's this sense in the Bitterroot that the federal government, the state, even at times local officials, have tread on people's rights in response to COVID-19, that these public health measures are an overreach. And that's been really tough on Ravalli County's public health nurse Tiffany Webber. She's a local who grew up down here. I caught up with her at her office in Hamilton, the county seat.
Tiffany Webber We are a fiercely independent culture down here, very fiercely independent. And because I'm from here and I understand that, I always thought that it was important to have a balanced approach, not a hard line. Yes, the science is a hard line. It's a hard line. It's not debatable, in my mind, but it's not everything.
Nick Mott What's she getting at with that last line, that it's not everything?
Alex Sakariassen For Tiffany and for others. If they get too heavy-handed, they know that the response is just going to be more pushback. I mean, there was a point last year when, you know, she started getting death threats over this stuff. She had a sheriff's deputy escorting her to public meetings for a while. And so they need to thread this really fine needle where they're protecting the public health, but not doing it in such a way that completely alienates a segment of the population and prompts them to push back.
Tiffany Webber You know, when I have some seventy-five-year-old crusty cowboy who says to me, 'I don't want your vaccine. I would rather take my chances.' I respect his opinion. My ask is that if you're sick, don't come into town.
Nick Mott How's that ask working out for her with folks like that crusty old cowboy?
Alex Sakariassen She's making some headway with people, but there's a particular segment of the population in the Bitterroot that is showing up at public health meetings and is trying to drag this conversation into the realm of their own beliefs. It seems to be largely focused in another town in the valley, Stevensville. And this group, they call themselves Stand Together for Freedom. I think I can best show you what this group is really talking about by sharing with you a copy of their June newsletter. I just sent you a link.
Nick Mott It is loading. It is loading. Here we go. There's an image of a guy pushing a mask and a needle away, saying "No thanks, I'm not your experiment." Mentioning the vaccines as a sort of poison. There's a lot of American flags. The message here is super clear. Like, the American thing to do is to resist being told what to do. This is just purely not factual, but it's portrayed here in a way as if it is fact.
Alex Sakariassen Yeah, and this is what Webber and public health officials in the Bitterroot are facing, is that this information, it may be debunked by federal agencies, but those aren't trusted sources. And as a result, this is the information that people are coming to public health officials with and saying, 'you need to protect us.' 'You need to do more.' 'You need to be our representatives.'
I want to tell you about a recent public health board meeting where that sentiment really came through. It was the October meeting of the Ravalli County Board of Public Health.
Sue Good And did everybody sign in and/or get an agenda?
Alex Sakariassen It was 1 p.m. on a Wednesday, they had a full docket of issues to discuss, mostly about septic systems, and people started filing in, a few at first, but pretty soon they started running out of printed agendas. And I'd start to think to myself, there's no way that 30 people are here to talk about septic issues. And this is kind of when I first figured out what was really going on here. They were there to push the board to start sharing information publicly about alternative COVID treatments
[unidentified speaker]: "There's information that's being sequestered on alternative treatments ..."
Alex Sakariassen Ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine, medicines that can be used to treat parasitic worms, head lice, malaria, even lupus, but have not been cleared to treat COVID. And the most prominent members of that group are this married couple, Alan and Terri Lackey.
"We are seeing people sick, just watching friends die or watching friends die from the protocols that are established around this and there's alternatives out there and the board refuses to talk about other alternatives," Alan Lackey says.
Alex Sakariassen Pretty soon, other people want to talk to him and his wife. Terri steps up to the mike.
"All we're asking you to do is just stop. Stop with the testing numbers, stop with the case numbers, stop with the 'C word.' We're asking you to stop using those three words."
Nick Mott What does she mean by the C word?
Alex Sakariassen The C word is COVID-19.
Nick Mott So, she wants people to stop talking about COVID, essentially?
Alex Sakariassen They are over this entire situation. You could hear in there. Katie Scholl responding. She's been on the public health board since 2016. She's a forensic nurse in the Bitterroot, and she's been struggling during these meetings to be a voice of medical expertise and experience. She's asked the Lackeys and their cohorts flat out, what do you want us to do. And the answer keeps coming back time and again. Stop the fearmongering, promote the truth.
Nick Mott And are people like Katie Scholl trying to incorporate that feedback into how, how the county is responding to the pandemic?
Alex Sakariassen They can't. Scholl's tried to explain to everyone in that room that vaccines are a federal issue. It's not a county issue.
"This is something that you need to go talk to your legislators and you need to deal with the feds because this is the FDA. And until the FDA takes it and puts it in that documentation that these drugs can be utilized in those manners, we cannot legally turn around and say, 'yeah, go ahead, do it. We can't.'"
Alex Sakariassen Even if they wanted to do what this group is asking them to do they could face a lawsuit.
"When you have FDA and CDC recommending this stuff, they box you into that recommendation, because as soon as we step outside of that -- ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine as an alternative -- and somebody in Ravalli County takes that and dies, we get sued and we pay that lawsuit out. And Ravalli County can't afford that wrongful death suit that would come from that," says County Commissioner Jeff Burrows.
Alex Sakariassen Everybody walked away from that meeting, still seeming like there was conflict, there was fear, there was division. And the board was visibly frustrated by the fact that they have other duties to focus on, and they can't spend this much time talking about COVID every minute. But they did make one concession. They said, we will schedule a separate COVID-specific meeting, and we promise we will hear you out.
Nick Mott Why would the health board agree to hear more?
Alex Sakariassen Yeah, and I was confused, too. But officials actually listening, like, giving the public this big platform to air grievances, it seems to have helped ease tensions elsewhere in the Bitterroot.
I'm going to take you back even further to August of 2021. I went to a public school board meeting in Hamilton because local school officials were trying to strike a compromise about mandatory masking. Basically, all of the parents who showed up to comment at that meeting seemed really mad.
So, here's what happened. Hamilton Superintendent Tom Korst introduced a policy that required students under the age of 12 to wear masks, but only in crowded spaces in school hallways and cafeterias.
Alex Sakariassen Korst told me later on that the logic heading into the fall was that those kids didn't have the option yet to get vaccinated, and it was a super light touch compared to what was going on elsewhere in the state. And of Korst knew going into that fall that there were going to be parents who wanted their kids to be masked and parents who absolutely would not stand for it.
Nick Mott How did that attempt at making compromise actually go?
Alex Sakariassen It totally backfired. The August meeting, I mean, that went on in excess of three hours, with parents on both sides coming up to the microphone and saying, "then why aren't they going to wear masks all year?" You need to put masks on kids, or you can't.
"Therefore, when I send my child to school without a mask, he cannot be forced to wear one and cannot be forced to leave," one parent said.
Alex Sakariassen And that feedback started to spill over into Korst's voicemail. Of course, Korst is happy to listen, but he told me he also has other things on his to-do list, like figuring out if the district can renovate or rebuild the old middle school building. Instead, at the start of the fall, they got stuck on this thorny masking issue.
Tom Korst That's my biggest worry is when that stuff creeps in, it just takes away your your energy and your focus, and now you're battling this other social agenda and not focusing on your school.
Nick Mott So is that how things kind of progress, that they're just stuck on these social issues and not getting the other things done that are important to the district?
Alex Sakariassen Well, the issue came up again in September. Parents were still upset. They were commenting on the school board meeting's Facebook Live feed, they were showing up in person. But the board, rather than revisit this policy, rather than respond by tweaking it, they stuck to their guns and gradually these sentiments stopped pouring in to Korst's inbox. I went down to the October school board meeting and it was just totally normal. The student council vice president gave the board an update from the high school homecoming. They got some big news from daily elementary to the playground. Apparently, one of the busses sideswiped an elk at some point.
Nick Mott That sounds so, like, normal and mundane.
Alex Sakariassen Yeah, I mean, there was no, you know, parental frustration at a public comment microphone. Of course, the board gave people a chance to speak, and it looks like by doing that, they allowed tempers to kind of die down.
But there's a flip side to all this. I mean, the district has had students and teachers come down with COVID. That number in September was 35 out of the student population of just under 1,500. And for October, the total was 12. So far, the district hasn't had any students or teachers die due to COVID, but that's still kind of the big fear.
Nick Mott Alex, when we left off, the Ravalli County Board of Health was getting ready for another public meeting with a vocal group of residents who are pretty mad about how the board is handling the pandemic.
Alex Sakariassen Yeah. So, seeing what had worked with the Hamilton schools, it really had me wondering whether the health board was going to succeed in settling its tensions with this group of citizens by holding this separate meeting. The situation here is a bit different. They're dealing with a group that in a lot of ways are newcomers to county health issues. Katie Scholl and the rest of the board, they're pushing back, but they're also doing a lot of civics education. And it's especially tricky because in the eyes of Allan and Terri Lackey and others, the health board is theirs. It's local. It's supposed to represent and defend the Bitterroot Valley, not agree with federal agencies.
Nick Mott So how did that second meeting actually end up playing out?
Alex Sakariassen Yeah, you know, I showed up not really knowing what to expect. When I walked in there was a line of folks out the meeting-room door ready to sign in. It was another Tuesday afternoon. About 35 people wound up either sitting or standing in the back, lots of the same faces, plus a couple of state lawmakers from the Bitterroot. And again, no masks. And right away, it was chaos.
"I'm asking you to understand why it is that we're in an adversarial position and why there are people that are airing their grievances," one speaker said.
Alex Sakariassen The board spent almost half an hour just debating whether to allow one resident to show some videos that were critical of vaccines was then Alan Lackey stepped to the mic again.
"We've had our constitutional rights and freedoms trampled on, and this board and medical officers and county health officer were complicit. You have fomented fear and panic dutifully, as you were told dutifully by your boss, which you admitted is the CDC."
Alex Sakariassen And Nick, it kept going.
"They trust you to give them all the information they need to make a good decision for themselves, and I don't think that you are," Melody Carter said.
"This masks mandates, school closure, business closure, church closer are totally unconstitutional. There's no place in the United States Constitution that allows the president of the United States ..." Kim Hancock said.
Alex Sakariassen I went on like this for four hours.
"Remember, our constitution begins with we the people, so we're the ones in control. We have the power," one speaker said.
"We're concerned citizens. We're concerned not only for our own health and safety, but that of all of the other residents in this county," another speaker said.
Alex Sakariassen All these emotions are getting mixed up together and make this dialog for the health board extremely difficult. There were a few immunologists and health care professionals who tried to set the scientific record straight and they were interrupted and booed. The people who were testifying didn't really seem to feel like they were being listened to either.
"And I can pretty much tell by the look on your face that you really don't care that we're asking you today," Terri Lackey said.
Alex Sakariassen Terri Lackey straight up walked out of the meeting after a couple back and forths with Katie Scholl.
"We've asked you, and to me, this is it," Lackey said. "I am not coming back and you can probably applaud that. I have beat my head against the wall enought. I get the message. We're on our own. But you know what, we'll be fine."
Alex Sakariassen And then Terri went a step further. She said that if people took the vaccine and died, she was fine with that.
"So get the vaccine, because Ravalli County's kind of overpopulated and I'm all for, kind of like, de-population in Ravalli County."
Nick Mott Wow. So, what did the board end up actually doing?
Alex Sakariassen Well, so, four hour meeting. At the end, County Commissioner Jeff Burrows, a fellow board member who has publicly said he doesn't plan to get the vaccine, leveled with the crowd. This kind of meeting is not going to happen again. This group has had its chance to speak and the board's got to get back to other business.
"We're not going to rehash COVID every single Board of Health meeting now. We had seven, nine, seven septic issues last time."
Nick Mott So, instead of kind of fizzling out like happened with the school district, that heat around COVID didn't seem to go away.
Alex Sakariassen No, they were still at a stalemate. Both sides walked away without really resolving anything or coming to a shared understanding about how to handle the pandemic. If anything, it seems like everyone is retreating even further into their own corners. This decision to kind of walk away from the public discourse, it was made out of a sense of desperation and exhaustion on both sides. It's like everyone throw up their hands all at once.
A lot of people I talk to in the Bitterroot said they really didn't know what the next chapter is going to be. This frustration about COVID measures could very likely play into local and statewide political races in 2022. The big question is whether stepping away from these intense clashes at public meetings is actually going to cool tempers overall and allow these two sides to make amends in the long run.
Nick Mott Do you think that's realistic?
Alex Sakariassen Honestly, I really don't know, Nick. But it cuts both ways. I mean, you heard Terri Lackey saying that she's done, too. The board has not budged any closer in the direction she and the rest of the group want them to go. And whether public health officials can eventually, if ever, build back what trust they had with this particular group is just going to be one of those questions we have to wait and see.
Nick Mott Shared State is a podcast by Montana Free Press, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio. This episode was reported by Katheryn Houghton and Alex Sakariassen and edited by Mara Silvers. Nicky Ouelette produced this episode. Editorial assistance by Corin Cates-Carney, Taunya English, Nadia Faulx and Brad Tyer. Fact checking by Jess Sheldahl. And Gabe Sweeney is our sound designer.