Disagreements over restrictions arise during Health Board meeting


Last updated 4/14/2020 at 9:37am

Disagreement arose at the weekly virtual Hill County Health Board meeting last Friday regarding social distancing and its enforcement.

After providing updated numbers on Hill County and Montana's COVID-19 cases Hill County Health Officer Jessica Sheehy said that five counties have declared community transmission, and that Hill County's guidelines regarding social distancing have been extended through April 24, in line with Governor Steve Bullock's recent directives.

Hill County Commissioner Diane McLean said she believes that the current guidelines are far too strict.

"I think that we are being terribly draconian... overextending to the point of generating a lot of fear, a lot of unnecessary turmoil," McLean said.

McLean cited numerous complaints she's been getting from people who want to use the golf course and are unhappy with its closure, as evidence of this disruption.

Sheehy said she considers the fact that Hill County has seen only one case of COVID-19 evidence that the current guidelines are working, and that if the trend continues Hill County may not extend its guidelines.

"My hope is that if we maintain our current levels (of COVID-19 cases) through the 24th these directives won't have to be extended," she said, "At this point, I'm considering our one case to be a sign that we are doing things appropriately, and while they may seem aggressive unnecessary to some, I think they show that our measures are working."

Sheehy also said no ulterior motives were in the directives and that their goal was strictly public safety.

"I don't think the goal of any of the directives it to spread fear or be directed at any one business," Sheehy said, "I think the point of it is to make sure as many people as possible are staying at home, and limiting their exposure as much as possible."

Todd Hanson of Havre wrote in the chat window during the meeting that officials shouldn't make unneccessary comments.

"One method to avoid creating unnecessary conflict or fear in the community would be for elected community officials to refrain from posting inflammatory comments on social media sites," he said.

He wrote that undermining the health department by implying that they are acting beyond their authority without evidence is unprofessional, unethical and beyond their authority.

McLean said she doesn't think the county's one case of COVID-19 is necessarily evidence that the guidelines are a success.

"I didn't say we were directing it at one person, I just disagree with being so aggressive with what we've done, because I don't know there's any way to tell why or what has caused our numbers to be what they are," she said.

Sheehy said Hill County is not the only place that can serve as evidence that social distancing is effective.

"From a health standpoint, from the (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), from the nation really, with all of these restrictions, are showing that they are working," she said.

McLean also said she has concerns about enforcement of social distancing in the coming weeks.

"As it drags on and drags on, you're going to find people that are not complying, and I don't believe we have the kind of resources to demand or enforce compliance," she said.

She said she thinks people might start refusing to comply if the guidelines stay-in-place beyond April 24.

Hill County Commissioner Mike Wendland and a representative of the Hill County Health Department, who could not be identified in the remote meeting procedure, said no citations have been issued by county law-enforcement for non-compliance with COVID-19 guidelines or Gov. Bullock's stay-at-home order.

Sheehy said it's important to note that people can carry novel coronavirus 2019 without having symptoms and can pass it on to others, and that things can get out of hand quickly when social distancing is not followed.

"The reality is, in places like New York, or Seattle, and quite frankly counties like Toole County, this is what we're seeing. It creates very little contact to create mass chaos," she said.

She said the county's stock of COVID-19 tests is adequate based on the testing model being used.

Erica McKeon-Hanson of Havre asked about the current standard for considering someone "recovered" from COVID-19.

Sheehy said the CDC says two negative tests is the national standard, but that the state of Montana doesn't have the tests required to make that standard practical. She said the Montana standard for "recovered" is 14 days in quarantine without symptoms. She said she assumes that's the standard being used at the state level.

Sheehy said the public is welcome to get in touch with the health department with questions and concerns.

"We are in constant contact with anybody who needs to call the health department who has a question," she said.

Before the meeting ended McKeon-Hanson said she wanted to compliment Hill County's health care workers for their recent efforts.

"It's national public health week and I just wanted to give a shout out to our Hill County Health Department, and Jessica our health officer, and Kim (Larson), and staff for the hard work they've been doing," she said, "... They're working very hard to keep us safe and healthy and often times it's a bit invisible the work that they do."


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