Come Nov. 27, the four employees at the Pondera County Health Department will be gone. The health department's director, Nicki Sullivan, wrote a letter to county commissioners addressing five issues she believes need to be addressed.
Sullivan's letter starts by saying she hopes the letter will bring about positive change for the department. She goes on to say she loves the community and the past seven years with the department have given her valuable experience.
But as good as the job may have been, not being able to hire someone to help with contact tracing, in addition to what she says is a lack of support and communication from county leaders, have made the job tough.
In response, county commissioners released a statement on Wednesday stating its collective continued support for healthcare professionals battling COVID-19, and that the county is currently trying to fill positions at the health department.
Here is the full text of Sullivan's letter:
The following letter is to make transparent my concerns and reasons for leaving in the hopes that changes will be implemented to improve the health of the community and morale of future staff.
First and foremost, I have a deep love for this community. I have worked at the PCHD for the last 7 years with 3.5 of those years as the head of the department. This job has provided me many years of opportunities that have enhanced my skills and knowledge in public health and have shown me how special our community is and what its needs are. 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. It is my ultimate goal to prevent disease and promote wellness in the residents of Pondera County. Not only because it is my job, but because I grew up in this town, this is this my home, my kid’s home. I feel heartbroken to leave this position and my colleagues within the PCHD office. Over the years I have shown my commitment to the county health nurse role and this pandemic is no exception. 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. A responsibility that needed to happen in the short term, but a consequence that I cannot continue to let happen, nor would I want my successor to have happen.
This letter is to state that if circumstances were examined and improved, I would consider staying. If these issues cannot be addressed it would be hard for another person to be successful. Regardless of if I am the county health nurse or not, I want the department to be successful. Below are the issues that I see and suggestions for improvement:
1.) 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 scrips 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. 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.
2.) The hiring process has become a barrier to my success. In a pandemic, help should be gained quickly and efficiently. I need my leaders to step up and either allow me to hire relief help when needed or make the process of approval easier by helping to writing job descriptions, helping to interview or even offering to be trained and take call themselves. We are in an era where expedited hiring is necessary to be successful. All hands on deck.
3.) In order to be successful I need to be heard and invested in, the lines of communication need to be open and frequent contact needs to be in place. 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. I am available to educate to fill the gaps but I need support to be successful. We are all role models for health and wellness, we need to show the community that we are all willing to make sacrifices to keep each other safe by doing what is recommended and speaking up if others are not seen doing what is best (ie masking, social distancing, handwashing, having large gatherings).
4.) Interrupting when necessary and supporting the PCHD’s efforts even during off hours. I find it increasingly difficult to be successful if we are not all on the same page. Hearing negative talk within the community about myself or the PCHD should be thwarted and never accepted. My population needs to have confidence in this office and conversations outside of our meetings should instill the public’s faith in our unilateral messaging.
5.) Adequate pay, we will be living with this virus for a while and I take the responsibility to protect our residents very seriously. My current hourly rate to head the health department should be increased to account for the added demands. I would like $5.00 dollars more an hour to head this department. I am open to having a conversation regarding a fair and reasonable wage.
In conclusion, I want to stress how heartbreaking it is for me to leave this position if changes are not addressed. Without these changes another person hired to be in this position will not be successful. I hope my considerations and suggestions are taken seriously to better serve the community of Pondera County and the remarkable citizens’ within.
Here is the letter from the Pondera County Commissioners:
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. 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.
Pondera County Commissioners