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After months of confusion surrounding decision-making on public events, Jefferson County Health Board Chairperson Christina Binkowski signalled that the Board should take a more active role in reviewing health plans for gatherings of 50 or more people as it seeks a new health officer. 

Former Health Officer Joan Van Duynhoven, whose contract was not renewed by the Board last week, had been the one to review and approve, or reject, health plans, which were submitted through the Public Health office. Health plans for events of 50 or more people became a state requirement under Phase II of the ongoing effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19. 

The health plans were submitted to the health department and forwarded to the health officer, said Binkowski. 

Prior to Van Duynhoven’s contract not being renewed on Sept. 1, there had been mounting tension over some of her decisions and directives concerning COVID-19, which spanned smaller events such as weddings, to larger, more public activities, such as the Northern Rodeo Association-sanctioned rodeo and high school sports schedules. 

Indeed, Jefferson County Commissioner Leonard Wortman said it was two instances in particular that led to the contract not being renewed — rejecting the NRA-sanctioned rodeo  health plan submitted by the Jefferson County Rodeo Association and what was characterized as “misleading” information over the cancelation of non-conference high school sports.

“During this pandemic we have felt it’s vital to have more than one person making the decisions on some of these directives,” said Binkowski in an email to the Monitor. 

“Prior to this pandemic, the Board was notified of the health officer’s decisions, but they were day-to-day duties. Now that this pandemic has hit us, it’s imperative we all sit down and discuss these plans and directives so everyone involved can have input,” said Binkowski. 

Health officers across Montana have experienced varying amounts of public pressure concerning events and their efforts to protect public health, according to the Montana Free Press, which featured Van Duynhoven in a Sept. 3 story, as well as other health officers in the state, as they navigate through the unknown territory that has characterized the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The latest battleground is sporting events, from rodeos to high school football games. Particularly at issue is whether to allow spectators at such events,” according to the Montana Free Press. (See story page 7).

During the July 14 Health Board meeting, Binkowski read a memo from county attorney Steve Haddon, which indicated that the Health Board had the final authority over health plans, but there was no discussion, nor action taken concerning the memo at that time. 

Jon Ebelt, public information officer for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, confirmed that health boards do indeed have final authority over health plans. 

“The health officer is hired to act on the board’s behalf,” he said, adding that, “equally, the health boards across the state play a vital role as well to advise and work in collaboration with the health officer.” 

Binkowski thinks the responsibility should be shared. 

“In my opinion, that is a lot to put on one person during this challenging time. If the Board can sit and collaborate with those individuals who are needing guidance from the health officer, we are better  served to make a choice in the best interest of the community. This is not a question of exerting power, it’s to make better informed decisions,” said Binkowski on Monday. 

Ebelt also stated that community members have the right to appeal a health officer’s decision to the health board.

The form that has been provided for event organizers by the Jefferson County Public Health Department has not indicated that an appeal was an option. 

Jefferson County Rodeo Association Secretary Brady Nordahl said her organization had appealed the denial of the NRA-sanctioned portion of the rodeo but were told that the process did not exist and the decision was final.  

Van Duynhoven confirmed that appeals were not available when she was the health officer.

When asked about appeals and offered the reply from the state about the health board’s role and that appeals were possible, Binkowski replied, “Great information.” 

At the same time, Van Duynhoven had indicated over the summer that having to wait until a Health Board monthly meeting to review health plans could make the process untimely or cumbersome. 

Perhaps one example of the ongoing tension and confusion over COVID-19 related directives is the high school sports spectator policy. 

The Jefferson High School trustees in August approved a spectator policy, which stated it was drawn up in conjunction with the county health department. 

Under Phase II each active player was allowed two spectators at home games, according to the policy.

That changed on Friday, Sept. 4, the same day that the Panthers were to play Whitehall in a non-conference match set up to offset the loss of conference games this season due to COVID-19. 

JHS Superintendent Tim Norbeck said the policy changed from two to four spectators at home games and two for away games on Friday — and credited the health department and interim health officer for the change. 

Whitehall High School Superintendent Hannah Nieskens forwarded a letter, dated Sept. 3, from the Jefferson County Health Board Administrative Office and signed by Sandy Sacry, RN, MSN, as Jefferson County Health Officer. Sacry wrote that  the school sports event plan had been reviewed by her and Department Supervisor Pam Hanna and approved.  

Sacry, a member of the Health Board, is now serving as the interim health officer. 

Meanwhile, the Health Board has begun advertising for Van Duynhoven’s permanent successor — a job that requires some stiff qualifications mandated by statute — that the person needs to be either a physician, have a master’s in public health or equivalent education and experience. 

According to the state, if a locality does not hire a health officer, the DPHHS can appoint one.  However, the law does not stipulate a time limit in which the local health board must act, said Ebelt.  A local health board can take its time to hire a qualified applicant and that varies from locality to locality, he said. 

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