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The Pondera County Commissioners and the Pondera County Health Department (PCHD) may have similar goals when it comes to the safety of county residents, but the recent resignation of the majority of the department could put that at risk. Nicki Sullivan, who has served as PCHD Director for over three years, submitted her resignation on Oct. 29, citing several issues, including the need for: additional staff or contact tracing COVID-19, a streamlined hiring process, open and productive lines of communication with county leaders and adequate pay. 

Shauna Wood, County Health Nurse, resigned the same day. Monday, Nov. 2, Tammy Totdahl, Prevention Specialist also resigned. Sullivan explained her co-workers’ reasons were simple. “Just burn out as well and they said, ‘we are a package deal and if I went, they did.’” 

Administrative assistant Michaela Orcutt had not submitted her resignation as of press time. The resignations are effective Nov. 27 unless the County Commissioners and Sullivan and her staff can agree to a change in working conditions. 

The Commissioners business meetings are held each Wednesday. On the afternoon of Nov. 4, the Commissioners scheduled a meeting with the Pondera County Health Department for Thursday, Nov. 5, which is not a regular meeting day and would have violated Montana’s open meeting and public participation rules.

Pondera County Commis-sioner Dale Seifert said the meeting was cancelled and as of press time has not been rescheduled. The Commission meeting was held on Tuesday, Nov. 10, this week due to the Veterans Day holiday.

 Sullivan stated she and her staff declined to meet with the Commissioners on Nov. 5 and requested the Commissioners put the issue on their regular meeting agenda. They asked for a set meeting time to allow the Pondera County Board of Health and Health Officer to attend. 

As of press time, the Commissioners had not responded to Sullivan’s request. 

“I feel heartbroken to leave this position and my colleagues within the PCHD office,” wrote Sullivan in her resignation letter. She stressed unless these issues are addressed and changes made, her successor will not be successful.

“I want to be transparent with the community and I want the community to know I’ve tried to do all I can. It makes my stomach turn to think of all our office and staff has done to provide for the health needs of our county. We have put our heart and soul into this community and our commissioners are going to throw it all away. 

“I feel heartbroken to leave this position and my colleagues within the PCHD office,” wrote Sullivan in her resignation letter. She stressed unless these issues are addressed and changes made, her successor will not be successful.

“I want to be transparent with the community and I want the community to know I’ve tried to do all I can. It makes my stomach turn to think of all our office and staff has done to provide for the health needs of our county. We have put our heart and soul into this community and our commissioners are going to throw it all away. It breaks my heart for our community,” stated Sullivan.

The Commissioners issued a “statement” to the media on Nov. 4 regarding the PCHD resignations and their actions “to fill the positions of Pondera County Health Department Director, County Health Nurse, and Administrative Assistant starting on Nov. 27, 2020.” Administrative Assistant Michaela Orcutt, who is on maternity leave, has yet to submit her resignation. 

If and when the Commissioners schedule a meeting with Sullivan, her staff and Health Board, she said key issues that need to be worked out include:

•Assistance for contact tracing on nights and weekends. “Contact tracing is vital to keeping this virus out of our community, or at least held at bay,” said Sullivan. She would like the authority to independently hire and train individuals to share this responsibility with her.

•Streamlining the hiring process during the pandemic. “I need my leaders to step up and either allow me to hire relief help when needed or make the process of approval easier…We are in an era where expedited hiring is necessary to be successful.” 

The current hiring process requires Sullivan to go through Human Resources and have a job description written, and then approved by the commissioners, who only meet weekly. This may take more than one meeting. The position(s) must then be advertised for two weeks and then the applications are screened and the potential hires are interviewed.

•Open and frequent communication with the county commissioners and county attorney. “I need unilateral support from commissioners and the county attorney. Supporting and promoting public health in the time of a pandemic means that my leaders should be up-to-date on current recommendations and guidelines so that they can echo the messaging coming from the PCHD,” said Sullivan.

•Supporting PCHD’s efforts. Sullivan said it is “increasingly difficult” for the PCHD to be successful in its efforts “if we are all not on the same page.” The negative commentary in the community about Sullivan and the PCHD should be “thwarted and never accepted…conversations outside of our meetings should instill the public’s faith in our unilateral message,” she wrote in her resignation letter.

•Adequate pay. Sullivan believes her hourly rate should be increased to reflect the “added demands” of her director’s position.

 “Over the years I have shown my commitment to the county health nurse role and this pandemic is no exception,” said Sullivan, who has worked for PCHD for seven years. “To show my commitment, I have put in many overtime hours and have made myself available to meet the new demands of this position, this has been to the detriment of my off hours and family time.” 

In October, Sullivan logged 63 hours of overtime in addition to her regular 40-hour work week. 

When COVID-19 hit eight months ago, county officials originally “banked” her overtime hours as comp time. Sullivan reviewed the county policy and learned due to the “declared emergency” she was owed overtime pay rather than comp time. 

“They did go back and pay me for the previous overtime hours worked,” said Sullivan, who currently earns $25.29 per hour.

“We will be living with this virus for quite a while and I take the responsibility to protect our residents very seriously,” she wrote in her letter to the commissioners. She suggested a raise of $5 per hour, but added, “I am open to having a conversation regarding a fair and reasonable wage.”

Sullivan pointed out the State of Montana is currently looking for “paid volunteers” do serve as COVID-19 contact tracers and their rate of pay is $19 to $24 per hour–with no degree.

Pondera County was advertising for a school nurse and infection specialist at a rate of $21.90 per hour, which is below what nearby counties are paying. “Public health is very underpaid and so it’s difficult to find nurses for the pay,” Sullivan pointed out.

Cut Bank Schools pays its school nurse $30.60 per hour. He works 35 hours per week and receives full benefits, which includes up to $680 per month for health, dental and vision insurance. The school district also pays .085% for retirement. Cascade County pays over $37 per hour for that position said Sullivan.

Possible impact to PCHD services and programs 

What services do Pondera County residents stand to lose if the Commissioners and the PCHD staff aren’t able to come to terms while Pondera County advertises and tries to hire replacements?

Communicable Diseases: 

Contact Tracing

Sullivan is most concerned about who will takeover this duty. “This is a time consuming job and is vital to controlling communicable diseases in our county,” explained Sullivan. Contact tracing must be done not only for COVID-19 but influenza, E-coli, sexually transmitted diseases and many other others. 

Immunizations

“Right now, the Commissioners are planning to give our pharmacies our flu vaccines to handle flu vaccination in the interim. We did over 900 flu shots last year,” explained Sullivan, “this is a huge amount of revenue they are giving up.” 

“In the last eight months we brought in $60,000 in all the vaccines we’ve given,” said Sullivan. “If a nurse is not hired and flu vaccines are given to pharmacies to give, it’s a big chunk of revenue that will be lost.”

Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Nutrition Program

According to Sullivan, if another nurse is not hired, not only will immunizations not be able to be offered, neither will WIC services. “I am working with the State to ensure our WIC clients do not have an interruption of services. This is an important program for many in our community,” she stated.

Grants

“Our grants all have deliverables that are due quarterly. They have to be completed and submitted and then the State releases payment for the quarter. There is a risk of losing funding if deliverables cannot be completed. I’m unsure of their plan at this time. I’ve provided them the contact person at the state for each program, so they can work on this.”

Chronic Disease Self Management-Walk with 

Ease program

Sullivan was the trained instructor for this program and with her departure the program will be lost.

Safe Sitter Classes

Sullivan partnered with Conrad schools to become an instructor and lead this program. Without her on staff, the program will not be available.

If Orcutt resigns, Pondera County would also lose: 

Car seat program

This program provides car seats at low cost to families. Orcutt is a Certified Passenger Safety Technician, so she has been trained on how to properly install car seats. 

Responsible Alcohol Server Training program

Orcutt is the instructor for this program. 

Commissioners advertising for Health Dept. jobs, urge community to follow Public Health Orders

The following “statement” was released by the Pondera County Commissioners shortly before 2 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 4.

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 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. 

Please find the job descriptions at https://www.ponderacountymontana.org.  

As we all understand, cooperative solutions during these unprecedented times can be challenging. However, we do know that the numbers of COVID-19 transmission continue to rise in Montana. As the numbers increase, our lives and the lives of our loved ones increasingly change as well. 

For example, when numbers increase, schools close and families must transition to distance learning. When numbers increase, our elderly population in senior care lose their ability to have physical contact with their families. When numbers increase, our businesses must find ways to stay open while adhering to imposed restrictions. And, when numbers increase, our churches must find ways to operate with limitations.

As representatives of Pondera County, we urge you to slow the spread of COVID-19 by wearing a mask, social distancing, washing hands, and limiting the size of gatherings. Most importantly, we urge our community to continue following the Health Department Orders regarding isolation and quarantine.

The County has received several complaints regarding lack of mask enforcement in businesses and those complaints are being reviewed by the County Attorney’s Office.

Thank you for your understanding and cooperation during these challenging and unprecedented times.

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