Organizing online, Covid skeptics drive public health professionals from their jobs At the same time Montana hospitals are seeing record numbers of Covid patients, county health officers are resigning or being forced out by elected officials who don't follow public health guidance.

Organizing online, Covid skeptics drive public health professionals from their jobs

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

More than a year into the pandemic, public health officers continue to be forced out of their jobs because of politics and misinformation. There are barely a million people in Montana, but a reported 17 county health officers have now either been forced out, resigned or retired early. NPR's Kirk Siegler has this story of one who is speaking out.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: In a river-cut valley in northwest Montana, Nick Lawyer is a physician's assistant at the 14-bed Clark Fork Hospital and Clinic.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Thank you very much.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Nice to meet you. Start that medicine tonight.

SIEGLER: Last year, Sanders County, population 11,000, asked Lawyer to take on the voluntary position of county health officer.

NICK LAWYER: I kind of think I was one of the few who expressed any interest in the position who had any reasonable qualifications for the job.

SIEGLER: It felt like the right thing to do in a crisis. But starting last winter, when the vaccines were rolled out, Lawyer found himself in the crosshairs of what he calls a small yet vocal group of extremists. He was surprised because, by then, Montana's governor, Greg Gianforte, had already overturned the state's mask mandate and banned private businesses from requiring their employees to get vaccinated.

LAWYER: Although there was no mask mandate, there were no vaccine mandates, there were no health restrictions in our county, people still felt that their rights were being trampled on.

SIEGLER: Things came to a head when Lawyer wrote an Op-Ed for a neighboring small town newspaper in which he urged people to get the lifesaving vaccines. Angry confrontations and protests at local meetings followed. It appeared there was a coordinated campaign of harassment targeted at him.

LAWYER: It's really disappointing that these people who I've cared for, these people whose kids I've coached, suddenly decided that I'm some sort of outsider.

SIEGLER: Lawyer grew up here. His family goes back five generations in Sanders County.

LAWYER: This hospital, my mom worked at. To see this fraction of our community become so vocally hostile towards me and my family, to threaten my wife and my wife's business.

SIEGLER: It all came to a head last month when an elderly local activist spoke at a county meeting, angry and grieving, saying his 82-year-old wife had died from COVID. He called Lawyer a petty tyrant.

LAWYER: I never met her. I actually never provided her any care. But her husband blames me for her death, saying that I put up barriers to her receiving unproven measures, like ivermectin and other treatments.

SIEGLER: After that latest ruckus, county commissioners decided they couldn't do their business anymore because these activists were so loudly and frequently disrupting their meetings. So they asked for Lawyer to resign, and he did.

TRAVIS MCADAM: This is, I think, a very good example of where the bullies won.

SIEGLER: Travis McAdam tracks extremism at the Montana Human Rights Network.

MCADAM: They're using bullying, intimidation and harassment as political tools.

SIEGLER: McAdam says far-right groups have deployed a playbook for how to disrupt public meetings and the lives of public health officials. Extremism experts say dark money groups provide all the social media tools and training online.

MCADAM: In most cases, no, it's not just a spontaneous thing where, oh, a hundred people all of a sudden decide to go to the school board meeting that night.

SIEGLER: Anti-government militants, like Ammon Bundy, started recruiting and organizing around lockdowns early in the pandemic. Now Bundy and others are running for office and seats on these boards. Diana Lachiondo is a former county commissioner in Boise.

DIANA LACHIONDO: I think what we're seeing in some cases, people are much more afraid of their perceived government overreach than they are of the virus.

SIEGLER: When a health board she was on last December expressed support for a mask mandates, they were confronted by an angry mob.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Shouting, unintelligible).

SIEGLER: Outside Lachiondo's house, protesters also screamed and played clips from "Scarface." Today she's worried qualified people just won't want to serve in these positions anymore.

LACHIONDO: That is incredibly sad, but also scary because then you're left with, who does step up? And what are their aims and motivations if they aren't altruistic?

SIEGLER: Nationally, a New York Times analysis found, more than 500 top health officials left their jobs in the last 19 months. In Sanders County, Mont., the physician's assistant (ph) Nick Lawyer says out of the 25 local nurses and doctors, he's heard of none who are willing to step up and fill his vacated seat. He says the anti-science climate in Montana right now is chilling.

LAWYER: However genuine in the effort to preserve individual choice and individual right, when we politicize and marginalize expert opinion - will certainly further push us down the road of fascism

SIEGLER: And in the nearer term in Montana, where Lawyer says public health experts are being sidelined, people will get sicker and probably die sooner.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Plains, Mont.

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