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Hours before the first case of COVID-19 in Montana was announced, local officials gathered at the Gallatin County courthouse for a press conference.

Matt Kelley, health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department, spoke first. His job was to deliver a warning: The virus was coming.

Kelley, 49, said people diagnosed with the virus would likely be neighbors and would be asked to quarantine in their homes. Don’t panic, he said.

“If this happens, we ask everyone in the community to respond with compassion, kindness and charity in their heart,” Kelley said.

That was March 13. The meeting was held at 2 p.m. Five hours later, Gov. Steve Bullock announced that a Gallatin County man in his 40s was one of the first four people to contract the virus in Montana. Since that announcement, the county has led the state for the most people infected, and Kelley has become the face of the local response to the virus.

A few days later, Kelley ordered bars and restaurants to close dine-in service for a week. As the numbers continued to rise, he made adjustments, added businesses and eventually called on the board of health to extend the closure to April 17.

He appeared at press conference after press conference, all of them live-streamed on the internet where anyone can watch.

His message from the start has been clear: stay home, wash your hands and practice social distancing when there is a need to go out for essentials.

“We have power to improve our health and the health of our community,” Kelley said. “Now, that power lies in creating the distance that helps us defeat the virus.”

Something different

Kelley lived many lives before moving here.

He grew up in Wales, Wisconsin. He later went to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, where he studied journalism and political science.

From the mid-1990s to the early 2000s, Kelley was a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska. He covered business, city hall and later worked at the paper’s Washington, D.C., bureau covering Congress, the White House and the Clinton impeachment trials.

Kelley enjoyed D.C., but felt distant from the people Congress was serving.

“In covering Congress, it could be kind of a year-long merry-go-round,” Kelley said. “And after a few whirls around there, you get to the point where you want to see something different.”

Toward the end of his time in D.C., Kelley met a woman named Cathy who lived across the street from him. In 2003, they simultaneously planned their wedding and applied to volunteer with the Peace Corps. They wanted to “try something outside of our comfort zone and something that was new and challenging.”

They eventually wound up in Mali, a country in West Africa. They lived in a small farming village. He was a water and sanitation volunteer and she was an agriculture volunteer.

Kelley learned to build relationships and trust to help people living there make healthy decisions. He said it was the happiest place he’s ever lived, and one of the most rewarding and challenging things he and his wife have ever done.

“When you go back to the United States, you kind of view things just through a different set of eyes and you see things in a different way,” he said.

When he returned from Africa in 2006, Kelley got a job writing grants for an orphanage in Maryland. However, he said, he wanted to work somewhere that had influence. He decided to get a masters degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University. After that, he went to work for the mayor’s office in Washington, D.C.

He was the liaison between the health department and the mayor’s office. It was a formative job for him.

“We had a wide variety of styles and learned a lot about how to manage,” Kelley said, “And I learned a lot about how not to manage.”

Kelley and his wife decided to leave their big city lives in 2010, after they had their first daughter, Laila. They had family in Montana and had visited a few times before. When the health officer position here opened up, he applied.

“Secret sauce”

Kelley has been the county health officer for 10 years now. He said his motto is that “public health should belong to the public.” That starts with listening to people and respecting them.

“That’s the ‘secret sauce’ to making sure that we’re providing services in a way that is meaningful and impactful to the community,” he said.

Lori Christenson, environmental health director for the county, described Kelley as a calm and solution-oriented voice in the health department. She has known Kelley for a little more than five years and said he is the “best combo of a leader” because he trusts people and lets them do good work without looking over their shoulder.

“He just wants to generate and grow good people,” she said.

Becky Franks, chair of the county health board, said Kelley has been instrumental in working with schools, hospitals, community medical centers and law enforcement to form “an incredible network of working together” on problems like wastewater, sanitation and vaping.

“This leadership did not start today,” Franks said. “It did not start when the coronavirus came into the community — it just got amped up.”

Franks, who met Kelley about five years ago when she joined the health board, said Kelley and his team have worked hard to talk to the public about the virus without causing panic. She feels fortunate to have Kelley during this time of crisis, both as a resident and in her role on the board.

“He just keeps going and has shown exemplary leadership, in my mind,” Franks said.

She said Kelley really steps up for the health department and has had to make difficult decisions — both during the coronavirus pandemic and before in managing a growing county. The decisions Kelley made about closing restaurants, bars and businesses ahead of state orders, Franks said, were necessary to have fewer sick people and protect the health system’s ability to care for them. She said catching it earlier was the way to go.

During his time in Africa, Kelley spent a lot of time working with the people who lived in Mali to reduce the amount of standing water to reduce malaria risk. He said that experience changed his view of things when he came back to America.

“My job today, when we’re not dealing with COVID-19 24/7, I spend a lot of time working with our environmental health department on very similar issues. The context and the scale is very different,” he said.

The scale of the problems may be different, he said, but most people want the same thing.

“They want to provide for their family, they want health, they want to feel secure, and they want to feel like they have power within their lives … to make decisions that keep them and their families safe,” he said.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.

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