Incoming Flathead City-County Health Officer Joe Russell, photographed at the health department office in Kalispell on Dec. 9, 2020. Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP Credit: Justin Franz / MTFP

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Two weeks after the Flathead City-County Health Department’s current leader announced she was stepping down because of a “toxic environment,” a former public health officer is coming out of retirement to take the reins of the department at the center of one of the state’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks. 

On Wednesday, the Flathead City-County Health Board voted to hire Joe Russell, a 30-year veteran of the department who retired as its leader in 2017, to come back to his old job. Russell was approved with the unanimous support of the board and is expected to start next week. 

He returns at a time of tumult in the department, which has had two leaders in six months and has been buckling under the pressure of the COVID-19 pandemic. In recent months, at least 10 staff members have left, and the department’s contract tracers have been spread so thin that they only have time to reach out to possible COVID-positive contacts in the highest-risk categories. 

When she announced her resignation on Nov. 27, outgoing interim public health officer Tamalee St. James Robinson pinned much of the blame for the department’s problems on a lack of support from both the health board and the county commissioners. 

“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. 

The day before Russell was hired, he said he knew that returning to his old job would be hard, but that he felt it was something he needed to do.

“It sounds corny, but this place means a lot to me and it needs a leader,” he said. “Someone recently asked me if I understood the challenges that would be facing me, and I said I do. I wouldn’t be taking this job if I didn’t have an idea of what I was getting into.”

Russell, 61, first joined the department in 1987, and became deputy health officer in 1991. He was promoted to county health officer in 1997 and held the job for 20 years.

Russell had been at the department for just a year when Flathead County experienced a measles outbreak. The winter of 1988-1989 saw 70 measles cases in Flathead County, mostly among school-age children and teens. Foreshadowing today’s COVID-19 crisis, public health officials tried to contain the spread by canceling large gatherings like high school sporting events and proms. Russell said those were unpopular decisions, but ones that had to be made to protect the community. 

“I need to make sure that the health board has the best public health science available to them, and be ready to discredit any crazy science. Hopefully they will make decisions based on the best science, and not hearsay.” 

Incoming Flathead City-County Health Department leader Joe Russel

Today, Russell said, equally difficult decisions will have to be made to limit the spread of the virus. As of Wednesday, Flathead County had 1,961 active COVID-19 cases. 

But those decisions haven’t been easy in Flathead County, where the health board has been disabled by division, and has been unable to pass crowd-size limits as other communities have done prior to Gov. Steve Bullock’s statewide restrictions on public gatherings. Some board members have placed the blame for the divisions on 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. 

Russell said he would work hard to maintain a positive and productive relationship with both the board of health and the county commission. He also said he would not allow people spreading false information to dominate board discussions. 

“I need to make sure that the health board has the best public health science available to them, and be ready to discredit any crazy science,” he said. “Hopefully they will make decisions based on the best science, and not hearsay.” 

Looking forward to his first day back in his old office, Russell said boosting morale within the department will be one of his top priorities. He said he plans to gather the staff and ask what they need to make their jobs and lives easier. That could be easier said than done, though. Some in the department, including Robinson, have expressed that they are not receiving support from the county commission. For example, the commission decided in November to not approve overtime pay for public health nurses who have been working long hours since the start of the pandemic. 

There’s another thing on Russell’s mind as well: how he’s going to help launch a massive vaccination program in the coming days, once the Food and Drug Administration approves a COVID-19 vaccine. Right now, Russell said, the health department doesn’t have enough nurses to launch a major vaccination campaign. 

“We’re going to need all hands on deck to get this done,” he said. “Anyone who knows how to vaccinate, we’ll need them.”

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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.