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A prominent voice during the pandemic, Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley leaves role

Matt Kelley

County health officer Matt Kelley talks to a group of reporters after a decision to close bars and restaurants in Gallatin County to slow the spread of coronavirus.

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After leading residents from the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 in Gallatin County in March 2020 to the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in recent months, County Health Officer Matt Kelley is leaving his role.

Kelley, whose last official day as health officer is June 6, spent 11 years as health officer. The first decade of his tenure was mostly out of the public eye as he carried on the normal duties of a public health official.

Though he was catapulted to the forefront in 2020 as COVID-19 took hold in Gallatin County, Kelley said preparations for a potential pandemic began years before.

“You can have a plan, but as soon as you get hit in the face that plan goes out the window and you’re just fighting for survival,” Kelley said in an interview this week.

He became a voice of calm as he helped navigate the early days of the pandemic, when personal protective equipment was sparse and testing was limited and slow as Gallatin County became an early hotspot for COVID-19 in Montana.

He later became a target of ire, amid outrage as the pandemic necessitated restrictions at area businesses and mask mandates became a key tool to limit the spread of the virus.

“In January of 2020, we were confronted by a virus that we didn’t know, we didn’t understand it, we didn’t understand how it spread and we didn’t understand a lot about it,” Kelley said. “We didn’t have enough PPE, we didn’t have any testing system to speak of, and we were heading into a pretty divisive political year that caused a lot of issues for us so all those things together made it a pretty tough year.”

As discord over mask mandates and business restrictions combined with rampant misinformation and conspiracy theories related to the pandemic swept across the country, Kelley was personally confronted by the issue.

For weeks in the fall, a group of people upset at health restrictions protested outside his house.

Protesters

Protesters gather Monday outside health officer Matt Kelley's house and call for Kelley to resign over coronavirus restrictions. 

Similar anger was seen at Gallatin City-County Board of Health meetings when the COVID-19-related restrictions were on the agenda.

During a press conference Friday, Kelley said the decisions affecting businesses were the hardest to make.

Public health officials knew any decision they made would upset some group of people, Kelley said.

“In some ways, when you know you’re going to make somebody mad, what you just try to do is what you think is right,” Kelley said. “So that’s what we tried to do, and that’s been hard.”

Gallatin City-County Health Board Chair Becky Franks said she can’t imagine going through the past year without Kelley at the helm. Despite all the pushback on the restrictions, Kelley never backed down, Franks said.

“He always looked to do the wise thing with the community but never said, ‘The heck with it, let’s just give up,’” Franks said. “And he was always steadfast with that. And because of that, I really truly believe our community is healthier than it would have been.”

Others on the health board and involved in the county’s COVID-19 response said Kelley’s leadership was a salve during the toughest parts of the pandemic.

For Kallie Kujawa, Bozeman Health’s COVID-19 incident command lead, it’s clear Kelley was an example of a person being put in “certain places at just the right time.”

“I truly believe that Matt and many others in the health department were in the exact right place that they needed to be,” Kujawa said.

Kelley said his decade of work with others in the health department and other organizations, like Bozeman Health and Montana State University, helped the health department respond to the pandemic.

But the department tackled other issues in the years before the pandemic hit, including work on behavioral health, which Kelley said remains a pressing issue.

Bozeman City Commissioner Christopher Coburn, who works for Bozeman Health and serves on the health board, said Kelley helped get the department involved in all the necessary issues.

Matt Kelley Supporters, Downtown

Cal Harrington and Kristi Lindsey show their support of Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley on Dec. 8, 2020, in downtown Bozeman. Harrington said, "I think around the state health officials are not getting the support they deserve."

“The health department has kind of just been in all the right spots, I think due in large part the way that Matt knows and understands public health,” Coburn said.

Kelley announced his departure in March. He said the thought of leaving at that time was difficult as the vaccine rollout was just starting to scale up and COVID-19 case counts were much higher.

But during a press conference Friday, Kelley said he could see where he thought the county was headed.

He leaves the health department as COVID-19 case counts reach encouraging lows as the vaccine is widely available.

“It’s a relief, frankly, to be able to get to this point,” Kelley said, noting that the pandemic is far from over and increasing vaccination rates is crucial.

Lori Christenson, now director of environmental health services, will take over as interim health officer Monday. The health board recommended her appointment to the Gallatin County and Bozeman City commissions, who have to vote on her appointment under a new state law that restricts the authority of health boards.

Both commissions have the appointment on their agendas next week.

In his next role, Kelley will be the first CEO of the Montana Public Health Institute, which he said is intended to work as the “connective tissue” between different public health organizations across the state.

“Local health departments, any organization, can be strong and powerful forces for change but they can also be fragile, and I think we’re seeing that in a lot of health departments that have been through it,” Kelley said. “They need support.”

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.

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