One Year With COVID: A Conversation with Cascade County's Health Officer

CCHD Health Officer Trisha Gardner
Posted at 8:25 PM, Mar 22, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-22 22:25:12-04

GREAT FALLS — Matt Holzapfel talked with Trisha Gardner, the health officer for the City-County Health Department in Great Falls, about what the last year has been like.

What has the past year been like for you and your colleagues working in healthcare?
“It’s been a tremendous learning experience over the past year. It has definitely had its ups, its downs, and everything in between. I think, just as a society, we’ve learned a whole lot about the scientific process and human behavior and that’s always an interesting thing to look at for both things, add in there a little bit of excitement, a little bit of stress, a lot of unknowns and we get to where we are today. It was a roller coaster, I guess, is probably the best way I can describe what the last year was like.”

When did you start this job?
“I started as Health Officer in December of 2019, so just a couple of months before the pandemic hit.”

When you took this job, did you ever envision working through something like this?
“Not in my wildest dreams. I know we’ve talked for years in the abstract of a pandemic hitting and knew it was a possibility and looking at history and just the way things were going, knew that there would be a possibility of something of this nature, a respiratory illness that could have very far-reaching effects, but even knowing all of that, I don’t think anybody anticipated what hit and what the last year brought.”

What’s something you feel that you and other health officials have learned from the pandemic?
“There’s been a ton of learning opportunities. I think one is we’ve learned a lot about how we can communicate to the general public and how we need to communicate about the scientific process and what that process even is. I think that’s been one of the biggest learning experiences for me is that people oftentimes, myself included, we want absolutes, and there has been nothing absolute throughout this past year. So, finding that way to communicate where we are and why we’re there, while simultaneously reassuring people that there are things that we can do to help themselves, help their community, everything else, and reassuring them that we will get through this, and I think we’re at that point now where we really can say, ‘look at everything that we’ve gone through, look at where we have made it through and we’ve come out to where we are now and we’re just getting further and further along. It’s just going to continue to get better.’”

What’s something you with that you and other health officials knew before COVID-19 started spreading?
“I mean obviously, hindsight is 20/20, but I think we would have loved to have known more about just the virus itself, how it was spread, but there was no way of knowing that, unfortunately. It was something that was novel to us and needed to be explored and examined before we had the information that we needed to really move forward with all of that. That’s why things have changed over the course of the past year, because as we’ve learned, we’ve changed and implemented new strategies or new prevention methods to work with that, masks being one of those perfect things. I wish I had known way back when that something like a cloth mask could really be a beneficial thing for everybody to be wearing. I think that’s one of the things that I look at and say ‘could we have curbed this a little bit more if we had encouraged that right at the beginning?’ But the science wasn’t there, we didn’t have that to back it up, and that’s just how it works. It was novel, it was new, and we didn’t have all the information so, as we learned more, we changed and tried to adapt to the new information coming in.”

What do you feel Montana and Cascade County have done well in response to this pandemic?
“I think we’ve done a lot of things well. As a state, we responded very quickly and proactively before we were hit hard as a state, and people, by and large, were very supportive of one another. We came through with a sense of community and willingness to help and I saw some really incredible things come out of that. Neighbors helping neighbors, businesses helping businesses, and just individuals all around. I think Cascade County did a phenomenal job with that. The other thing that I look at recently is the vaccination efforts. We’ve done a tremendous job in our state and in our county in getting these vaccinations out to people that were most vulnerable and needed them the most and are continuing that and are getting to the point very soon here where we’re opening up to absolutely everybody and that really excites me to what the future might look like.”

What do you feel Montana and Cascade County could have done better in response to this pandemic?
“I think this would probably be the consistent across everything, that some of the factors within it hadn’t become politicized. That would just be a hope. This was a health issue all along and not a political one to me.”

How close do you feel that we are to returning to “normal” life?
“We’re not out of the woods yet, we still need to be taking precautions. We’re not at a place where we have herd immunity. Case-wise, we’re sitting in a good place right now, especially in our community where we have a low case rate and I do think that that lends itself to being able to resume some of those normal activities, as indicated by the lifting of the restrictions that we did as a Board of Health and a Health Department. We’re going to continue monitoring that. Right now we’re at the point where we’re looking at people that maybe were on spring break, different things. The potential is there for another spike, I hope I’m wrong and we don’t ever see anything, that is my ultimate hope, I think we really learned some very valuable lessons just about communicable diseases in general, and I think we’re going to continue seeing people implementing some of those things. Things like just general sanitation and your own hand hygiene, staying home when you’re sick, some of those really common-sense practices that everybody can implement that can make a huge difference to the community.”

When you look at the facts and the numbers and current state of the pandemic, what gives you hope?
“There are actually a lot of things that give me hope. The main one is that, as a community, we came together and were able to get our case rate low, and we do have a low case rate at the moment. We don’t have a lot of community spread, and that’s something that’s very hopeful to me. The other thing, of course, is the vaccination efforts and the willingness and desire for people to want to get vaccinated, I think that’s phenomenal. We have three really great options out there and it’s just going to continue to get more available, more widespread for availability throughout our community, and opportunities for everybody to get those vaccines. I really encourage people to read the science behind it and look at those things. Although these were approved faster in many ways, it had the science behind it that has been in place for years and years, and that’s why we were able to move faster in getting these developed and approved than maybe we have been with other ones in the past. So, that really gives me hope that we have not just one, not just two, but three and possibly a fourth vaccine coming that are extremely effective and safe for people.”

Are there things that you think we’ll take with us from living through this pandemic after it’s over?
“I think some things that we can take forward are all the prevention methods that we’ve learned over the past year. We’ve seen some secondary things that have come out of it such as our other respiratory illnesses were way down this year, and I think that really speaks to the prevention methods that we had in place and the things we used: keeping a little bit of distance, having the ability to work from home if you could, wearing of face masks, making sure your sanitizing regularly and staying home when you’re sick. All of those things, I think, are things that we can continue with moving forward to just have a healthier community in general.”

She added, “It was a new adventure every day and, like I said, a tremendous learning experience. It gave us the opportunity to really look at our internal processes, places where we may fall short, and places where we excel. We get to take that knowledge moving forward and just try to do a better job in all respects in responding to any other kind of crisis like this in the future.”

Resources and information

The Rebound: Montana