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Two Years In, Covid Leaves Montana Public Health Officials Feeling ‘Watched’

Visit Yellowstone Public Radio or Montana Public Radio for a transcript of the episode.

After covid-19 arrived in Park County, Montana, the local health officer, Dr. Laurel Desnick, became the face of pandemic measures and the focus of attention as never before. She’s been whispered about at the grocery store, yelled at on her way home, and called a tyrant.

She and other public health workers say they feel that they’re living in a fishbowl and that everything they say will be scrutinized. “It almost sort of feels like you’re being watched,” Desnick said. “It’s not a good feeling.”

Her work once felt straightforward: to make research-based recommendations backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other medical experts. But the process has become skewed in public debates with people who don’t trust those baselines, she said. Public health workers across Montana have said they now uncomfortably accept that the perfect pandemic endgame isn’t going to happen. 

“I can’t make anybody do anything,” said Sue Good, the top health official in McCone County, Montana. “Everybody knows what covid is. … If they choose to not follow the recommendations and the guidance, that’s their problem. I’m not going to lose any sleep over it anymore.”

KHN Montana correspondent Katheryn Houghton spoke with these and other public health workers who said they’re tired of picking fights they feel they can’t win. Montana Free Press reporter Alex Sakariassen dove into how that conflict has played out in one rural — and fiercely independent — county in the southwestern corner of the state.

In Episode 4 of “Shared State,” the journalists explore how in the era of covid debates about public health, personal liberties, and science have reached a fever pitch. Those disagreements are tugging at tightknit towns and counties, making some residents wonder how their communities will survive.

“Shared State” is a co-production of Montana Free Press, Yellowstone Public Radio, and Montana Public Radio. This season shares stories about Montanans working through political quagmires.

Visit Yellowstone Public Radio or Montana Public Radio for a transcript of episode 4.

KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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