The four employees of the Pondera County Health Department. Top row from left to right - Micheala Orcutt, Nikki Sullivan, Bottom row: Shauna Wood; Tammy Totdahl (Source: Pondera County Health Department)

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A rural Montana health department director who said she resigned because of lack of county-commissioner support to fight Covid-19 said the decision was the hardest of her life.

“I am a proud champion of community projects and connecting families in need to resources and programs that help them to survive and thrive. This is what brings me joy,” Nicki Sullivan wrote in her November 4 resignation letter.

Sullivan said she was most concerned with the commissioners’ lack of support for her and her department. In her letter, she cited the lack of help doing contact tracing and being able to hire people to fill positions that would help with contact tracing.

“Contact tracing is time consuming, I need help sharing ‘call’ for nights and weekends. Many public health offices have a shared call model where people are trained, have script and make calls after hours. I would like to be able to independently hire/train/follow-up on a person(s) and share this responsibility,” she wrote in her letter.

“Contact tracing is VITAL to keeping this virus out of our community or at least held at bay, without help, this job is following me home and affecting my personal life.”

Sullivan sent the Pondera County Commissioners a letter on October 29 letting them know that she felt there were issues that needed to be addressed because the lack of support makes it impossible for her to do her job.

“This letter is to state that if circumstances were examined and improved, I would consider staying,” she wrote. “If these issues cannot be addressed it would be hard for another person to be successful. Regardless if I am the county health nurse or not, I want the department to be successful.” 

Contract tracing has become more important since the beginning of October when the county started to see a surge in Covid-19 positive cases. 

“Our surge was pretty late,” Sullivan  said in an interview with the Daily Yonder. “We were doing OK until early October. We started to see a surge after a large event at a golf course. If it was just a golf tournament it would have been fine. But it was everybody hanging out at the bar afterwards.”

Since then, the number of active cases has grown, she said. Currently, the county of 5,792 has 26 cases.The county has seen 200 cases in total, with one death, since the beginning of the pandemic. 

But the increase in cases also means an increase in hours doing contract tracing, Sullivan said. 

“In the month of October, I’ve put in 68 extra hours,” she said. “That’s on top of my normal 40-hour work week. It’s definitely affected my family time.” 

Additionally, she said, she feels the county doesn’t have her back. 

In her letter, Sullivan said being role models for the community by following public health guidelines was essential in keeping the community safe. “I don’t feel like I have any support from the county,” she said. “We have a new county attorney and he is not willing to enforce any guidelines on businesses.”

The rest of the health department has also filed letters of resignation in support of Sullivan. The health department’s website lists Shauna Wood, RN; Tammy Totdahl, prevention specialist; and Micheala Orcutt, administrative assistant, as the other employees of the department. Sullivan said Wood submitted her letter of resignation on October 29 as well, and Totdahl submitted hers on November 2. 

Sullivan said Orcutt’s letter of resignation has not officially been submitted yet, but that didn’t stop the commissioners from listing her job as open, however. 

“The Pondera County Commissioners, County Attorney, Sheriff’s Office, DES Coordinator and other departments would like to take the opportunity to voice its continued support of our health care professionals in battling Covid-19. As members of this community, we share the common goals of reducing Covid-19 transmission, keeping our children in school, and keeping our businesses open,” the commissioners wrote in a statement. 

“The County is currently seeking your help in meeting these shared goals. The County is currently seeking to fill the positions of Pondera County Health Department Director, County Health Nurse, and Administrative Assistant starting on November 27, 2020.”

The commissioners also appealed for cooperation during the pandemic, urging everyone to wear masks, exercise social distancing, wash their hands and limit their gatherings. They also addressed complaints of the lack of mask requirement enforcement, claiming they are being reviewed by the County Attorney’s Office.

Tom Kuka, one of the county’s three commissioners, said in an interview with the Daily Yonder, that while he couldn’t speak for the other commissioners, there wasn’t much to talk about. They had received Sullivan’s resignation letter, he said, and had scheduled a time to meet with her on November 5, but she was unable to make that meeting. A new meeting time has not been scheduled. 

“She’s here til the 27th,” he said. “Our biggest thing is to keep providing service to the community.” 

Kuka said he recognized how hard it is to get health care professionals to fill roles in rural areas. 

“Hiring people in this day and age is a tough thing,” he said. “But we’ll try to keep it local at first. We like to hire people within our own community. There is a large demand out there for health care workers though.” 

Kuka said they were also looking at things like mutual aid agreements and assistance from the state.