Interim Flathead City-County Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson appears via video in Flathead County District Court on Nov. 12, 2020. Credit: Hunter D’Antuono / Flathead Beacon

In the heat of one of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks in Montana, Flathead County’s interim public health officer is resigning. 

On Nov. 27, Tamalee St. James Robinson told the Flathead County Commission and the Flathead City-County Board of Health that she will step down from her position Dec. 31. She also wrote that she will not be returning to her seat on the health board, which she had temporarily vacated over the summer to take over for the county’s previous health officer, who left for another job. 

In her resignation letter, Robinson pointedly blamed both the health board and county commissioners for politicizing the virus that has killed 39 people in Flathead County and nearly 700 people across the state. 

“It’s clear that the 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,” Robinson wrote. 

As of Dec. 1, Flathead County had 2,095 known active cases of the virus. Since March, Flathead County has had more than 6,800 confirmed cases of the virus, mostly in the last few weeks. While other counties have instituted various controls to try to slow the spread, Flathead County has not, and its health board failed twice to institute a proposal to limit indoor gatherings to 500 people. Before Gov. Steve Bullock issued a statewide order prohibiting public gatherings of 25 people or more when social distancing is not possible, other counties had capped gatherings at 25 or 50 people. Despite the governor’s new crowd-size restrictions, a craft fair was held this past weekend in Kalispell, against Robinson’s recommendation. Robinson handed in her resignation the same day Christmas at the Fairgrounds began

“The Commissioners’ and the Board’s failure to enact or publicly support even the most basic recommendations regarding mask usage, along with any type of recommended group meeting restrictions, has not only increased public health risk, but it has also demonstrated a clear lack of support for the county health department.”

Resigning Flathead County interim public health officer Tamalee St. James Robinson

In the letter, Robinson wrote that lack of support for the health department from both the health board and the county commission has resulted in low morale and numerous staff resignations. 

“Spiking COVID-19 case numbers, along with an increasing number of deaths, have been met with nearly complete inaction by your groups, versus any type of reasonable mitigating response,” she wrote. “The Commissioners’ and the Board’s failure to enact or publicly support even the most basic recommendations regarding mask usage, along with any type of recommended group meeting restrictions, has not only increased public health risk, but it has also demonstrated a clear lack of support for the county health department.”

Bill Burg, acting chair of the health board, said he is sorry to see Robinson leave, but that he is not surprised, either. 

“She was taking so much abuse and she was tired of it,” he said. “She just had enough.”

Kyle Waterman, a Kalispell city councilor who sits on the health board, echoed that sentiment and said it was particularly disappointing that Robinson also decided to permanently leave her position on the board. Robinson had spent 30 years working in public health, including 20 years in Billings, before becoming chair of the health board in Kalispell

“It’s really disheartening that our board is so divisive right now that this is the result,” Waterman said. 

Robinson is the second person in six months to resign from Flathead County’s health board. In May, Michael Nicosia stepped down, saying he could not serve alongside Dr. Annie Bukacek, an outspoken critic of vaccines who has also led protests against government efforts to slow the spread of the virus and falsely downplayed its danger. Burg, Waterman and other community members have said Bukacek has fueled much of the divisiveness on the board. 

Robinson is not the first public health officer in Montana to resign in recent months. Over the summer, public health officials in Powell, Carter and Ravalli counties all stepped down, citing disagreements with local elected officials. Most recently, all four members of the Pondera County Health Department resigned in protest over a lack of support from the local commission

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Flathead County has been looking for a new health officer since this past summer, when the previous one, Hillary Hanson, left for a new job. In the months since, the county health board has held two failed searches and had three offers to potential hires turned down. Waterman, who leads the hiring committee, said the increasingly expensive housing market in the Flathead Valley is contributing to the struggle to find a new health officer who might have to relocate to the area. The health board is expected to hold an emergency meeting later this week to determine a plan for when Robinson leaves on Dec. 31. Burg and Waterman said they are optimistic they will have someone in place on Jan. 1.

In her resignation letter, Robinson pinned the county’s inability to hire a public health officer squarely on local politicization of the virus.

“While other factors may contribute to the problem, the toxic environment being fostered between the Commissioners, the Board of Health, and the Health Department is exacerbating an issue making it difficult to [recruit] an incoming health officer,” she wrote. 

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.