A prominent voice during the pandemic, Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley leaves role | Health
After leading residents from the first diagnosed case of COVID-19 in Gallatin County in March 2020 to the adoption of COVID-19 vaccines in recent months, County Health Officer Matt Kelley is leaving his position.
Kelley, whose last official day as a health officer is June 6, has spent 11 years as a health officer. Most of the first decade of his tenure was out of the public eye as he performed the normal duties of a health officer.
Despite being catapulted to the top in 2020 when COVID-19 hit Gallatin County, Kelley said preparations for a potential pandemic began years ago.
“You can have a plan, but once you get punched in the face, that plan goes out the window and you are just struggling to survive,” 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 anger amid outrage as the pandemic imposed restrictions on businesses in the area and mask requirements became a key tool in limiting the spread of the virus.
“In January 2020, we were faced with a virus that we didn’t know, we didn’t understand, we didn’t understand how it spread, and we didn’t understand much about it,” said Kelley. “We didn’t have enough PPE, we didn’t have a significant testing system, and we were headed for a rather divisive political year that caused us a lot of problems. All of these things together made it a pretty tough year. “
When disagreement over mask requirements and business restrictions combined with rampant misinformation and conspiracy theories related to the pandemic raged across the country, Kelley personally faced the problem.
Similar anger was seen at Gallatin City-County’s health committee meetings when the COVID-19-related restrictions were on the agenda.
During a press conference on Friday, Kelley said the decisions that affect businesses are the hardest to make.
Public health officials knew any decision they made would upset a group of people, Kelley said.
“When you know you’re making someone angry, in a way you’re trying to do what you think is right,” said Kelley. “So that’s what we tried and it was difficult.”
Gallatin City-County’s health committee chair Becky Franks said she couldn’t imagine making it through the past year without Kelley at the helm. Despite the restraint of the restrictions, Kelley never gave in, Franks said.
“He’s always tried to do the smart thing with the community, but he never said, ‘Damn it, let’s just give up,'” said Franks. “And he was always steadfast. Because of this, I really believe our community is healthier than it would have been. “
Others on the health committee and involved in the county’s COVID-19 response said Kelley’s leadership was an ointment during the toughest parts of the pandemic.
To Kallie Kujawa, head of Bozeman Health’s COVID-19 incident command, Kelley understands that Kelley was an example of putting a person “in certain places at the right time.”
“I really believe Matt and many others in the health department were exactly where they needed to be,” said Kujawa.
Kelley said his decades of work with others in the Department of Health and other organizations such as Bozeman Health and Montana State University helped the Department of Health respond to the pandemic.
But the department was looking at other issues in the years leading up to the pandemic outbreak, including behavioral health work, which Kelley says remains a pressing concern.
Bozeman City commissioner Christopher Coburn, who works for Bozeman Health and serves on the health committee, said Kelley helped keep the department involved in all necessary matters.
“The health department was just in the right places, I think that’s in large part because Matt knows and understands public health,” Coburn said.
Kelley announced his departure in March. He said the thought of leaving at this point was difficult as the vaccine adoption was just beginning to grow and the number of COVID-19 cases was much higher.
But during a press conference on Friday, Kelley said he could see where he thinks the county is headed.
“It’s honestly a relief to get to this point,” Kelley said, noting that the pandemic is far from over and increasing vaccination rates is crucial.
Both commissions have next week on their agenda.
In his next role, Kelley will be the first CEO of the Montana Public Health Institute, which he said is intended to act as “connective tissue” between various 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 see that in many health departments that have been through it,” Kelley said. “You need support.”