BILLINGS — The Park County health department in Livingston announced on Tuesday it would send incoming calls to voicemail, citing an influx of harassing calls mostly from people demanding vaccines, frustrating county residents who desperately need health services.
"It's hard for me to understand what motivates anyone to do such a thing," said Peter Soper of Livingston on Wednesday.
When trying to reach Park City-County Health Department, the caller is met with the message, "Due to the extreme call volume and an increase in mean and angry language, we are no longer answering calls in person. Please leave a message and we will get back to you as soon as possible. Calls which are disrespectful to our staff will be referred to the county commissioners."
Time right now is of the utmost importance for Soper. He was exposed to COVID last week and started feeling sick on Saturday. He was tested for COVID by Park County public health staff and got a call 15 minutes later that he was positive.
Soper said in Livingston, he's got his doctor's approval to get monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID at a Bozeman hospital. He needed a doctor's referral, which he had, and his positive test results, which were stuck at the county health department.
"I'm trying to get a hold of the health department because they are the ones that have my positive test results and I can't. I can leave them a message, but so far I haven't gotten a callback," Soper said.
Soper said he called around 10 a.m. Wednesday and didn't hear back. So by the afternoon, he worked it out to receive another COVID test from his doctor in Livingston. He said he should be scheduled for an appointment in Bozeman by Wednesday evening.
"I'm pretty fortunate in that I've still got my wits about me and I've got the drive to negotiate and navigate through all of this BS, but there's a lot of people who don't and I worry that lives are being lost because of this kind of breakdown in our system," Soper said.
Public health staff, hospital staff and school board members harangued with abusive comments from the public: a problem that's not new during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Laurel Desnick, Park City-County health officer, said the calls picked up a few weeks ago and came as a shock to staff. While on the phone with someone, Desnick said a staff member counted a dozen missed calls.
“It really came as quite a shock to us these last few days to have, again, some comments that were so unpleasant that we made the decision to simply let people leave a message if they need something and if they’re asking in a courteous way, by all means, we’ll get right back to you," Desnick said.
The calls aren't coming from people unhappy with the health department or its COVID suggestions and guidelines; the callers are clamoring to get vaccines and booster shots, Desnick said.
“What’s different about it is it's people who are demanding vaccines, not opposed to vaccines. It was sort of a whole new twist to unhappy people," Desnick said.
Desnick stressed that the angry calls have been the minority, compared to a vast majority of support that's been shown to the Park County health department since the pandemic began at the start of 2020.
“This is absolutely not the whole county by any means and we just want to be sure that the county knows how grateful we are for the support that we’ve received from them in this last year and a half," Desnick said.
The plan is to turn the phones back to a live person on Monday and if people need a COVID vaccine or booster, there's no shortage in Park County, Desnick said.