Organizing on social media, Covid skeptics are driving public health professionals out of their jobs: NPR
Kirk Siegler / NPR
When Nick Lawyer, a medical assistant in Sanders County, Mt. was invited by local leaders to take on the volunteer position of County Public Health Officer, it seemed like the right thing to do to serve his community in times of crisis.
âI kind of think I was one of the few who expressed an interest in the job and had reasonable qualifications for the job,â Lawyer said.
The attorney had worked as a medical assistant at the 14-bed Clark Fork Valley Hospital in Plains, a town of about 1,000 people located in a relatively remote river basin in northwestern Montana, since 2013. When he accepted To take on the additional duties, he decided to also start a master’s program in public health at the University of Montana to bolster his qualifications.
Little did he know that these qualifications would soon become a mark on him in the eyes of some local activists.
Starting last winter, when the COVID-19 vaccines were rolled out, Lawyer found himself in the crosshairs of what he calls a small but noisy group of extremists. He was surprised, because by that time far-right Montana Governor Greg Gianforte had already quashed the state’s mask mandate and the state’s Republican-controlled legislature had passed the only country’s law prohibiting private companies from requiring their employees to be vaccinated.
“Although there was no mask warrant, there was no vaccine warrant, there were no health restrictions in our county, people still felt that their rights were flouted, âLawyer said.
Several months later, the lawyer would lose his volunteer position, becoming the last rural state county health worker to be forced to leave, resign or retire at the start of this pandemic. The problem is nationwide, but an Associated Press analysis shows a particularly high rate in Montana, with at least 17 officers leaving (Montana has 52 counties).
The departures also come as Montana recently hit a record with the most hospitalizations on record for COVID-19. While the Delta variant’s push appears to be easing across much of the rest of the country, Montana, with a population of one million, is blatant resistance.
A volunteer health worker described as a “little tyrant”
Things came to a head for Nick Lawyer in Sanders County when he wrote an op-ed for several small town newspapers in the area urging people to get vaccinated (only around 40% of the population County of Sanders is fully immunized today).
Angry confrontations and protests at local meetings followed. There appears to have been a coordinated campaign of harassment against him.
âIt’s really disappointing that these people I took care of, these people whose kids I coached suddenly decided that I was kind of an outsider,â Lawyer said.
The lawyer grew up in Sanders County. His family dates back five generations. He and his wife also sit on local boards and train in schools. Today, he also works in the same hospital as his mother.
âTo see this fraction of our community become so hostile to me and my family, threatening my wife and my wife’s business, it’s really disappointing,â he says.
It all came to a dramatic and disturbing crescendo in September after an elderly local activist spoke at a county meeting, angry and in mourning, claiming his 82-year-old wife had died from COVID. He would have called Lawyer a “little tyrant”.
“I have never met her,” said the lawyer. âIn fact, I never provided her with any care. But her husband blames me for her death saying I put up barriers to her receiving unproven measures like ivermectin and other treatments. ”
The “bullies won”
After this latest heckling, the county commissioners decided they could no longer do their business because these activists were so loudly and frequently disrupting their meetings. So they asked the lawyer to resign and he did.
“This is a great example of where bullies won,” says Travis McAdam, extremism expert at the Montana Human Rights Network.
McAdam says far-right groups have developed a playbook on how to disrupt public meetings and the lives of public health officials.
âThey use bullying, intimidation and harassment as political tools,â he says.
Monitors from extremist groups like McAdam interviewed for this story say black money groups are increasingly making all training and social media tools readily available online. It’s not so much that money is pouring into those communities or targeting certain races or positions, they say, it’s more that groups such as those led by Ammon Bundy quickly send SMS alerts or use Facebook groups. to alert activists to mobilize across the rural northwest. .
âIn most cases, no, it’s not just a spontaneous thing where a hundred people suddenly decide to go to the school board meeting that night,â McAdam says.
Anti-government activists like Ammon Bundy began to recruit and organize around lockdowns at the start of the pandemic, seeking to capitalize on long-standing anti-government sentiment against rural areas.
Lately, McAdam has pointed out that Bundy and others have shifted their strategy to running for political office and trying to fill seats on boards of health and other local organizations. In Sanders County, there are rumors that a local Bundy sympathizer is taking action to try to take over Nick Lawyer’s former health post.
“In some cases, people are far more afraid of the overreach of their government than they are of the virus,” said Diana Lachiondo, former commissioner and board of health officer for Ada County, Idaho.
Last December, when she and other members of the state’s central health district board expressed support for preventative measures such as extending mask orders, they were faced with an angry mob who tried to break into the building where the meeting was being held. Protesters also shouted, hit pots and played clips of Scarface outside Lachiondo’s house in Boise.
Today, she fears that qualified people will no longer come forward for these positions.
âIt’s incredibly sad but also scary because then you end up with, who escalates and what their goals and motivations are if they’re not selfless,â Lachiondo said.
Health worker worries we are heading “down the path of fascism”
The exodus of health workers and other resigning from their posts is not unique to Montana. A New York Times analysis found that more than 500 senior health officials have quit their jobs in the past 19 months. In Sanders County, MT, medical assistant Nick Lawyer said among the roughly two dozen local nurses and doctors he had heard of no one ready to step in and fill his vacant seat.
The lawyer says the anti-science and anti-expert climate in Montana right now is chilling.
“As genuine as the effort to preserve individual choice and individual rights is, when we politicize and marginalize expert opinion, it will certainly push us further down the path of fascism,” Lawyer said.
And in the shorter term, in Montana, where the lawyer says public health experts are being sidelined, he warns the state will experience worse health outcomes. More people will get sick from a number of diseases and they will die sooner.