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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Powell County Health Officer Resigns Over COVID-19 Politics

A man wearing a COVID-19 mask.

At least two public health workers across the state have resigned due to disagreements with elected officials and the public over restrictions aimed at keeping the coronavirus pandemic in check. Lori Drumm is a family practitioner at the Deer Lodge Medical clinic and for about another week, Powell County’s public health officer. MTPR’s Aaron Bolton spoke with Drumm about her resignation.
Aaron Bolton You recently announced that you're leaving your position as public health officer for Powell County after a confrontation with some local residents at the Deer Lodge Medical Center, where you work as a family practitioner. I mean, what happened and what was the confrontation about?

Lori Drumm Well, I scheduled a meeting. I was asked to meet with three county commissioners and my public health nurse. To my surprise, right when I was heading out to the meeting I was called by the CEO of Deer Lodge Medical Center and he asked if I was expecting a crowd. Eight to 10 came into the building waving copies of the Constitution. And this really upset our screening process. And we have a secretary up front to ask people not to block the door, several times, I understand, because patients were trying to come in; and they actually blocked the entrance.

Bolton What were they angry about?

Drumm There are very obviously upset by any government officials and I think they've been upset with Governor Bullock directives, which I've been implementing. I think what he's doing is right on. I've been very supportive of that. And I could do more strict things here in Deer Lodge, but I've chosen not to because I think Governor Bullock did a good job of outlining what needs to be done and has been very effective here. You know, we haven't had a case yet, and I've been to council meetings in the community as well. I sat there and listened to them one night, it's mostly about the Constitution and their rights, and we have no right to impose any restrictions in business. A lot of them wanted to keep the bars open till 2:30, not just 11:30, and then that changed to 12:30.

Bolton Why was that confrontation at the medical clinic the last straw for you?

Drumm It's because they actually came to my place of business and disrupted a hospital setting. They blocked the patient's entrance. It just wasn't appropriate to bring their agendas and, you know, an angry, disgruntled kind of crowd to a hospital. I couldn't control that; whether that would happen again. And then would things escalate the next time?

Bolton Do you think public health decisions, like in your case with the canceling of the county fair are being politicized? And what does that mean for the health of the community that you're trying to, you know, as you say, protect?

Drumm Oh, it's definitely being politicized. It's shocking how politicized this has all become. And hard to understand from my point of view, just because I look at it as such a health thing. And I don't know why people are so against, you know, the mask thing, when to keep things open -- which is what they want economically -- that they won't wear a mask. And then that's really -- we've learned that that's the only way to really keep things open when you can't socially distance.

Bolton And you're not the only public health officer to resign recently due to disagreements with the public, or elected officials. Do you think there will be more public health workers to leave the field before the pandemic is over?

Drumm Absolutely. It's just happening across the country. And so I'm sure, because it's only it's going to get worse -- the pandemic. It's not over, especially because people are not following the recommendations. You know, they're getting too close at parties, at rodeos, at weddings, at funerals, whatever it might be. So I think it's going to escalate. And then it just gets hard to handle all the negative, you know that comes at, comes your way.

Bolton What does that mean for Montana's public health system? I mean, if more public health officers and workers resign here?

Drumm Well, fortunately, Governor Bullock is doing a great job. So if people follow the directives, I think we'll be fine. I think it's just really, how do you handle those protesters? You know, because they're still going to go to city council meetings. There's still not going to wear their masks. They're going to gather. So that's that's the tough part, preventing the spread.

Bolton Yeah. And I imagine those situations are going to make it really hard for people to want to step into these jobs, even if there are qualified candidates around, watching this happen to others may make people reluctant to to hop into these positions. I mean, do you think it will get harder to find people to fill those jobs?

Drumm I do. And I was asked, you know, for a recommendation of who to appoint. And I said, I can't recommend this job to anybody. So if they step forward or if they want, the commissioners want to ask somebody, you know, that's fine. But I didn't want to be instrumental in having somebody step into a situation that became intolerable for me. And I certainly wouldn't want my colleagues to step into it because I don't want the same, you know, they would attract that same group to our hospital. And I think that's dangerous.

Bolton What can we do to keep public health workers on the job?

Drumm Everything's just been so political and charged up. I think it's a ... I don't have an answer.

Bolton Well, Lori, I want to thank you for taking the time.

Drumm You are very welcome.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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