Poll results: Montanans support local health officers

Those surveyed don’t want more restrictions on local health boards

Healthcare workers screen a patient for COVID-19 at a drive-through coronavirus testing site on March 18, 2020 in Arlington, Virginia. Arlington County and Virginia Hospital Center have opened a temporary drive-through coronavirus testing site for Arlington residents and county employees with a letter from a licensed health-care provider. The results for patients tested are estimated to be available in 5-7 days. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Just 17 percent of Montanans want elected officials to make decisions about public health — most,  70 percent, are more likely to trust local boards of health with related concerns.

That’s according to results of a recent poll conducted by New Bridge Strategy and provided Tuesday in a video presentation. The survey was sponsored by the American Heart Association and American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network.

Amanda Cahill, with the American Heart Association, said the organizations sponsored the poll to see if some of the rhetoric around public health and the bills aimed at restricting the ability of health officers and boards to take independent action were in line with the views of Montanans.

“Do Montanans trust our public health officials?” Cahill said.

According to survey results of 500 landline and cell interviews with state voters, Montanans have a more positive view of health officers than they do of the legislature — 52 percent have a favorable impression of health boards or officers compared to 49 percent who have a positive view of the Legislature.

Although the health officers are more popular than the legislature, they are tied with Gov. Greg Gianforte, a Republican who also received a 52 percent favorable view. However, 41 percent of those polled have an unfavorable view of Gianforte compared to 26 percent who have an unfavorable view of their health officers.

Most people polled, 69 percent, also believe decision-making by health officers and boards works well in their communities. But among Republicans, just six out of 10 agree.

In her presentation of the findings, Lori Weigel, principal with New Bridge Strategy, said COVID-19 was the lens through which most people were viewing their health officers’ decisions. For the most part, people think the status quo is working, she said, but she estimated the reason fewer Republicans agree.

“It could be some pushback from decision-making then (during the pandemic),” Weigel said.

poll health

Response to the pandemic was politicized last year at the federal level during the former administration of President Donald Trump and also in Montana.

For example, last summer, the public health officer in Ravalli County resigned after the Republican commissioners said businesses could decide whether to require masks — following an order that mandated indoor masks from then-Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat.

As the pandemic unfolded, local health officers took different approaches around the state. The health officer in Missoula County, one of the more populous, has set stricter protocols than the state at times — or started restrictions earlier — in order to curtail infection rates and keep hospital capacity open.

This session, the Montana Legislature has taken up several bills that aim to restrict the authority of local health officers and boards. House Bill 121 from Rep. David Bedey, R-Hamilton, is less restrictive than some proposals and targets decisions made during declared emergencies, and it is listed as being transmitted to the governor.

According to the poll results, some 69 percent of Montanans still want local health officers to be able to independently address local health situations, and just 26 percent believe the decisions should be subject to “additional authorization.”

“Even more overwhelming is the rejection of a proposal that would ban local boards of health and health officers from setting standards and keeping some standards in place that affect businesses,” reads a summary of the results.

Seventy-seven percent of those polled want local communities to set standards for local businesses, and just 17 percent don’t want them to have that power.

The poll has a margin of error of 4.38 percent and a 95 percent confidence level.

New Bridge Strategy is a research firm based in Colorado that has polled on behalf of GOP presidential candidates and also conducts surveys about conservation in the West. Weigel formerly served as the political pollster for Denver’s News 4 and the Rocky Mountain News.

Poll health results
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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”