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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 intended to curb the spread of the coronavirus, the political schism it highlighted is creating reverberations in one community in the northwestern corner of the state.

A Flathead County health board member who led a movement to disparage the protective safety orders and downplay the virus is now the subject of two competing petitions — one to expel her from office and another to keep her.

When the commissioners in this county of about 104,000 people appointed Dr. Annie Bukacek to the health board in January, they might have known they were getting into a political hornet’s nest. “Dr. Annie,” as she’s known in the Flathead Valley, is a well-known and outspoken opponent of vaccinations.

Then, as the coronavirus spread into Montana and the crisis deepened here and across the country, she became a leading voice locally and in this politically purple state against government restrictions to curb its spread.

In a widely circulated video posted on social media, Bukacek cast doubt over official COVID-19 death tolls, saying medical professionals were pressured to attribute non-COVID deaths to the virus. In many communities, such as New York City, though, the deaths from the virus are now believed to have been initially undercounted. Many public health experts say historical comparisons show the counts nationwide are still underestimating the COVID-19 death toll.

On her Facebook page, Bukacek often posted criticisms of Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home orders, stating they weren’t based in science. Bukacek did not respond to requests for comment for this story. But on April 25, just days after the governor announced the state would begin 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 might seem to be just another fringe backlash against public health regulations, but Bukacek’s critics say she has power and authority as a member of the county health board, which manages the local response to disease outbreaks, including quarantine and isolation orders, plus related directives to businesses and schools. They say her actions risk lives.

Her critiques also mirror a growing movement that has mounted protests across the United States. While surveys show an overwhelming majority of Americans have supported stay-at-home directives and other measures to slow the spread of the virus, loud protests have materialized from Montana to Michigan to Kentucky. Health workers and others, in turn, are countering the protesters.

This fight over social distancing highlights the preexisting political divide in our country that now has taken on more edge given the economic and life-or-death implications for all.

The Flathead Valley is a microcosm of this fight. It’s a gateway to Glacier National Park, making it a haven for affluent tourists and retirees. It’s also a predominantly white populace in a spot bordering two large Native American reservations. And it has been a frequent, often reluctant, haven for political controversy, sometimes 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 built a following with his Liberty Fellowship, which defied coronavirus public health orders early on and held in-person church services.

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

In Kalispell, where nearly 24,000 people live, many health care workers fear Bukacek’s anti-social-distancing movement could be risking their lives and the health of their patients.

Joan Driscoll, a nurse practitioner who has worked in health care in Kalispell for 20 years, said protests and false information spread by Bukacek have created widespread anxiety in the community.

“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,” said 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 started a petition drive to remove her from the health board — an effort that’s so far drawn more than 2,300 signatures. A competing petition to keep her on the board has garnered more than 4,500 signatures. Local officials have not put the issue on their agenda for discussion, though one county commissioner told the Flathead Beacon newspaper he regretted appointing her.

Human rights groups fear Bukacek and the backlash against COVID-19 restrictions will recruit new adherents to the far right. Residents of Kalispell have already reported that a new Friday night “community cruise” of cars parading down the main drag has included displays of Confederate flags in a county that borders Canada and wasn’t a state during the Civil War.

“For a lot of people, it feels like she’s come out of nowhere over the last couple of weeks,” said 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 community in Flathead County that weathered a white supremacist troll storm, said locals need to speak out against the anti-science, anti-public-health messages being broadcast in the region.

“Right now, she is intentionally creating controversy,” DeVries said 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.”

This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

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