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How The Pandemic And An Anti-Vax Health Official Are Roiling A Montana Community

Even as Montana begins a gradual easing of stay-at-home restrictions meant to curb the unfold of the coronavirus, the political schism it highlighted is creating reverberations in a single group within the northwestern nook of the state.

A Flathead County well being board member who led a motion to disparage the protecting security orders and downplay the virus is now the topic of two competing petitions — one to expel her from workplace and one other to maintain her.

When the commissioners on this county of about 104,000 folks appointed Dr. Annie Bukacek to the well being board in January, they may have recognized they had been getting right into a political hornet’s nest. “Dr. Annie,” as she’s recognized within the Flathead Valley, is a widely known and outspoken opponent of vaccinations.

Then, because the coronavirus unfold into Montana and the disaster deepened right here and throughout the nation, she grew to become a number one voice regionally and on this politically purple state towards authorities restrictions to curb its unfold.

In a extensively circulated video posted on social media, Bukacek solid doubt over official COVID-19 dying tolls, saying medical professionals had been pressured to attribute non-COVID deaths to the virus. In many communities, corresponding to New York City, although, the deaths from the virus at the moment are believed to have been initially undercounted. Many public well being specialists say historic comparisons present the counts nationwide are nonetheless underestimating the COVID-19 death toll.

On her Facebook web page, Bukacek typically posted criticisms of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home orders, stating they weren’t based mostly in science. Bukacek didn’t reply to requests for remark for this story. But on April 25, simply days after the governor introduced the state would start easing restrictions that he credited with flattening the COVID-19 curve, Bukacek wrote, “I fervently pray we stay awake, as governors return freedoms they never had the right to take away in the first place.”

All this would possibly appear to be simply one other fringe backlash towards public well being rules, however Bukacek’s critics say she has energy and authority as a member of the county well being board, which manages the native response to illness outbreaks, together with quarantine and isolation orders, plus associated directives to companies and colleges. They say her actions danger lives.

Her critiques additionally mirror a rising motion that has mounted protests throughout the United States. While surveys present an overwhelming majority of Americans have supported stay-at-home directives and different measures to gradual the unfold of the virus, loud protests have materialized from Montana to Michigan to Kentucky. Health employees and others, in flip, are countering the protesters.

This combat over social distancing highlights the preexisting political divide in our nation that now has taken on extra edge given the financial and life-or-death implications for all.

The Flathead Valley is a microcosm of this combat. It’s a gateway to Glacier National Park, making it a haven for prosperous vacationers and retirees. It’s additionally a predominantly white populace in a spot bordering two giant Native American reservations. And it has been a frequent, typically reluctant, haven for political controversy, typically branded a haven for white supremacists and anti-government activists.

In 2010, right-wing pastor Chuck Baldwin moved from Florida to the county seat of Kalispell and constructed a following together with his Liberty Fellowship, which defied coronavirus public well being orders early on and held in-person church providers.

Though Montana has been one of many states hit least onerous by COVID-19, with a confirmed caseload of fewer than 500 and 16 deaths as of May 5 in a inhabitants of 1 million, Flathead County has had extra circumstances than all however three of the state’s 56 counties. As of Tuesday, the county had reported 37 circumstances.

In Kalispell, the place practically 24,000 folks dwell, many well being care employees worry Bukacek’s anti-social-distancing motion may very well be risking their lives and the well being of their sufferers.

Joan Driscoll, a nurse practitioner who has labored in well being care in Kalispell for 20 years, mentioned protests and false data unfold by Bukacek have created widespread nervousness locally.

“The danger to our community is that she is in a position of authority, as a physician and a voting member of the board that oversees our community health clinic,” mentioned Driscoll. “By ignoring the mandates of staying at home and avoiding crowds, she is with her actions telling people those mandates — that are flattening our curve and keeping our hospitals under control — are wrong. That’s harmful to me and all other health care workers as we see more and more people infected with this virus.”

Local organizers have began a petition drive to remove her from the health board — an effort that’s to date drawn greater than 2,300 signatures. A competing petition to keep her on the board has garnered greater than four,500 signatures. Local officers haven’t put the difficulty on their agenda for dialogue, although one county commissioner informed the Flathead Beacon newspaper he regretted appointing her.

Human rights teams worry Bukacek and the backlash towards COVID-19 restrictions will recruit new adherents to the far proper. Residents of Kalispell have already reported that a new Friday night time “community cruise” of automobiles parading down the principle drag has included shows of Confederate flags in a county that borders Canada and wasn’t a state throughout the Civil War.

“For a lot of people, it feels like she’s come out of nowhere over the last couple of weeks,” mentioned Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network. “The reality is she has a long history of work in these far-right circles and is a fairly known quantity, especially for organizations who work around the legislature.”

Cherilyn DeVries of the Love Lives Here anti-discrimination advocacy group in Whitefish, a smaller group in Flathead County that weathered a white supremacist troll storm, mentioned locals want to talk out towards the anti-science, anti-public-health messages being broadcast within the area.

“Right now, she is intentionally creating controversy,” DeVries mentioned of Bukacek. “She is trying to pit people against each other. She’s trying to get people to see the hospital and the health department as the enemy, when these are the very people who you’re going to go to to save your life.”

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