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Health Department Resignations In A Montana County Slow COVID-19 Vaccine Distribution


America's vaccination campaign now relies on local public health departments, and they have been strained. In one Montana community, in fact, an entire staff of a county health department quit. As Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports, that slowed vaccination efforts.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: As COVID-19 cases skyrocketed last fall, Nicki Sullivan (ph) was working 90-hour weeks as the head of the health department serving the 6,000 people in Pondera County. That's one reason she quit in November.

NICKI SULLIVAN: The main reason that I resigned was just the lack of support from our county officials.

BOLTON: Sullivan says county commissioners failed to be role models in the community by not following a state mask directive and other COVID mitigation measures.

SULLIVAN: We had business owners telling us that they weren't going to follow quarantine. And the commissioners didn't support us in enforcing those quarantine orders. And our county attorney said that she wasn't willing to and wasn't going to enforce any quarantine or isolation orders.

BOLTON: Sullivan's three employees also quit, leaving the health department empty. Several weeks later, County Commissioner Dale Seifert, wearing a mask, says county leaders weren't opposed to COVID mitigation measures and thinks compliance with health directives has improved. He attributes the fallout with former employees to a lack of communication and the workload.

DALE SEIFERT: We've restructured the health department now to where we've spread the load out more among the employees 'cause we were overworking them.

SIMON: Lori Freeman with the National Association of County and City Health Officials says Pondera County is not alone in having tension between local elected officials and public health workers.

LORI FREEMAN: Throughout this pandemic, at a time when public health leadership has been really needed the most in communities, we've also seen public health be very politicized.

BOLTON: She says that's a big reason why across the country roughly 200 public health leaders have quit since the pandemic's start and a number of support staff.

FREEMAN: When we have that turnover, we are bound to see some associated costs with that turnover as well in terms of our ability to keep the community safe.

BOLTON: In Pondera County, that means the local hospital has had to step in to help distribute COVID vaccines. It's not really equipped for that. But the newly hired staff at the health department is still crafting a larger vaccine plan. Public health nurse Shannon Elings says, for now, the county is putting names on a waiting list so it will be ready to give shots when a new batch of vaccine arrives in the coming days.

SHANNON ELINGS: If and when people call in, we let them know that we're in the process of ordering it. That's when we take down their demographics, get to know what group they'd fit into. And we'll just let them know as soon as we have it available when we can start scheduling.

BOLTON: Public health experts say it's important for trusted local officials to clearly communicate how vaccine rollout is working in their community and to reassure people who are skeptical that the vaccines are safe and effective. Carrie Doty, who runs a day care, says her father, for one, isn't getting that message from Pondera County authorities.

CARRIE DOTY: My father is 84 years old. He's not health compromised. He still lives on the farm. He's fine. But I want him to get the vaccine.

BOLTON: Doty says he's turned to far-right cable news networks instead, which has left him skeptical about getting a shot. She hopes that'll change as he sees local health officials begin vaccinating people he knows.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton reporting from Pondera County, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.