I never expected my second job to take over my life. I had no idea how aggressively people would come after me for trying to prevent the spread of covid-19 — or that, ultimately, I’d have to resign.
Early on, when we knew little about the coronavirus, people here were very afraid: My staff and I answered panicked calls every day from residents who thought they had the virus and wanted a test. My clinic had a provider walk out of the room, outright refusing to see two patients who had a fever and a cough. Anxiety was at a high; so was vigilance.
Through the spring and early summer, Powell County had no cases, and I wanted to keep it that way: Our hospital has a few ventilators but no intensive care unit. I followed the directives set by our governor, Steve Bullock. They seemed spot-on to me, promoting safety without being overly restrictive, and giving local officials leeway to set additional policies as needed. Stricter rules didn’t seem necessary for our very rural county, where around 7,000 people live spread out across a huge area.
But as Montana reopened this summer, I sensed a big change. People were lulled into complacency: We hadn’t gotten a case yet; maybe we never would. Plenty of citizens still played it safe, but others started to grow impatient, and then angry, with public health restrictions.
Some folks complained about bars closing early or about having to wait at their seats instead of just walking up to the bartender — but it was the mask requirements that really fired people up. Starting on July 15, Montana required mask-wearing in enclosed, public spaces in any counties with more than four active cases. That didn’t apply to Powell — we still hadn’t gotten a case — so we stuck to just recommending face coverings.
I certainly wasn’t going around checking or issuing reprimands. But some locals were so infuriated by the existence of the state guideline that they picketed downtown, and even traveled to other communities to protest their mask ordinances. That’s how intensely they felt that the government was encroaching on people’s rights.
And since I was the face of the public health authority in Powell, that resentment got directed at me. People wrote to the local newspaper to denounce me. A few patients reported they’d seen nasty, angry posts about me on social media. At town council and county commissioner meetings, when things got heated, I tried to de-escalate the situation: I repeated, again and again, that I was a doctor — not to pull rank, but to point out that my life’s work was about protecting people and keeping them healthy.
It all came to a boil over the rodeo, scheduled for August. That’s a big deal around here, usually drawing a couple thousand attendees from across three counties. People pack together for a few hours and drink and have a great time — and there was no way I could allow it to go on. With so many gatherings canceled due to the pandemic, whenever an event does go on as planned, it draws a crowd. If throngs of people from across a huge geographical area got together, someone would carry and spread the virus — especially since there was no way to enforce social distancing or mask-wearing. To my mind, an outbreak was inevitable. I canceled the rodeo in early July.
The backlash was immediate. On July 6, my hospital’s chief executive called me, asking: “Were you expecting a crowd?” I didn’t know what he was talking about, and said so. He warned me not to come to the building, where I had a meeting, until he told me to. Later, I was told that some 30 people had gathered in front of the hospital, waving copies of the Constitution in the receptionist’s face, demanding to be let in. The entrance, where we conduct covid-19 screenings, was blocked; patients couldn’t come through.
At first, the protest seemed more like a nuisance than a threat. But the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me. People had come to my workplace because they thought I was trampling on their freedoms. What would they do next? Yes, most people expressed support for public health measures, and I knew this angry group represented only a small — though vocal — slice of the population. But they were growing more and more intimidating. I feared that the confrontations would escalate, and that my patients would suffer as a result.
So I resigned from my public health position. Now, the full-time nurse is our county’s sole public health official, and has been the target of negative comments and name-calling from angry residents and business owners.
I am part of a larger wave of public health officials resigning across the country, threatened with violence, facing political pressure to change guidelines or just burned out from the stress. Ohio’s state health director resigned after Republican lawmakers tried to force her out and armed protesters showed up at her home. So did the health officer for Orange County, Calif., after an especially contentious meeting: Attendees claimed that a face-covering rule might require them to invoke their Second Amendment rights, then read her home address out loud. In Colorado, people sprayed graffiti and threw rocks at the windows at the Tri-County Health Department.
Historically, Americans have often distrusted public health officials. Still, the anger caught me off guard. It’s easy to think of elected officials or public health experts as faceless authorities, to demonize them, when you’ve never met them. But in my case, it felt personal. I’ve been to birthday parties and Christmas gatherings with the same people who are now calling me a dictator; I’ve invited them out for dinner. It surprises me that they don’t know my heart — that they think of me as some distant oppressor.
People reassure me that everything will calm down after the election; they say tensions are just running high because of all the politics in the air. I hope that’s true. But I worry that our country is so divided that this kind of suspicion and anger will live on long after a winner’s declared. It’s hard to imagine how our country can move past this pandemic, when there is already so much distrust.
As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.