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Nicosia quietly resigns from county health board

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | May 13, 2020 7:37 AM

Flathead County Board of Health member Michael Nicosia of Columbia Falls recently stepped down from his board position, citing concerns related to Dr. Annie Bukacek, a Kalispell physician whose appointment to the health board in December has generated widespread controversy and recently caught the attention of the national media.

In his resignation letter, Nicosia told the county’s Public Health Officer and Flathead County commissioners he could not, “in good conscience, continue to serve as a member of the Board of Health alongside Dr. Bukacek.”

Commissioner Pam Holmquist, who is also the commissioner who serves on the Board of Health, said she was disappointed to hear of Nicosia’s resignation and said his background in education was particularly beneficial. Nicosia, whose term was slated to expire at the end of 2021, served as the Columbia Falls District 6 Superintendent of Schools for 19 years.

“I think he was an amazing contributor to the board. We turned to his knowledge and experience often,” Holmquist said. “I asked him to stay on and reconsider, but he chose not to because of the situation and that’s his right to do so. I think it’s unfortunate and I think he’ll be missed.”

Nicosia’s resignation letter was sent out prior to the board’s most recent meeting in April. He said while he has valued his position, the upcoming meeting would be his last if Bukacek was allowed to continue serving as a board member, adding “I must above all be true to my oath of office and to myself.”

Bukacek is a longtime physician in the Flathead Valley and owns Hosanna Health Care. In interviews and on multiple YouTube videos she has discussed her qualms with the vaccine industry, but does not describe her beliefs as being “anti-vaccination,” but rather, “pro-informed choice.”

Bukacek, like many other Montanans, is also a critic of Gov. Steve Bullock’s directives for residents to shelter in place and for non-essential businesses to temporarily shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic — orders she has spoken out against both on social media platforms and in videos. And in early April, she organized a protest to oppose the city of Kalispell’s emergency declaration, which city officials have said was declared in an effort to access emergency funding to aid with various costs associated with the COVID-19 outbreak, despite orders to quarantine. The Montana Human Rights Network described this push against shelter-in-place directives as “anti-government.”

Around the time of the protest, Bukacek also challenged the COVID-19 death toll during a presentation at Liberty Church in Kalispell. Prior to being called to the podium, the pastor of the church, Chuck Baldwin, listed her credentials, pointing primarily to her long career as a valley physician and her position on the Board of Health. A video of the presentation has captured nationwide interest.

“How many people who have actually died from COVID-19 is anyone’s guess. Again, God only knows,” Bukacek said in the video. “But based on how death certificates are being filled out, you can be certain the number is substantially lower than what we are being told. Based on inaccurate, incomplete data people are being terrorized by fear mongers into relinquishing cherished freedoms.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has essentially stated the opposite. The organization has said medical leaders believe death tolls are underreported, particularly in areas such as New York and Seattle.

“I am truly troubled by the actions of Dr. Bukacek. I serve on the Board of Health to assist our county in protecting its citizens,” Nicosia stated in his resignation letter. “Dr. Bukacek’s actions, under the title of Flathead City-County Board of Health member, are legitimizing dangerous misinformation and endangering the citizens of Flathead County.”

NICOSIA’S SENTIMENTS regarding Bukacek have been shared by many in recent months, including more recently the Whitefish City Council, which wrote a letter to the Flathead County commissioners in late April requesting her removal from the board.

“We recognize as a private citizen, Dr. Bukacek enjoys the same right to engage in free speech that we all do,” the council wrote. “However, her use of her position as a Board member to promote her personal views (which lack scientific support, and if followed would undoubtedly endanger the public health) as well as to broadcast fallacies and incite others to violate and ignore a lawful order of the Governor, is unacceptable.”

But it is Bukacek’s right to free speech, her challenging of COVID-19 death numbers and her stance on the governor’s orders that others in the Flathead Valley and elsewhere have come to support.

Two separate petitions — one to keep Bukacek on the Board of Health and another to remove her — have emerged on change.org, where individuals can virtually sign and comment on petitions. The petition to remove Bukacek from the board, organized by “Citizens of Flathead County,” had garnered nearly 2,600 signatures as of Friday morning. And the petition for Bukacek to stay on the board, organized by “Doctors Unmasking Covid-19,” had nearly 4,700. It is unclear whether all of the signers on the petitions are from the Flathead Valley.

On the petition to have her removed, many signers allege Bukacek’s messaging is dangerous to the community and that she is using her position on the board and as a physician to promote her political views. On the petition to keep her on the board, signers highlight the Constitution and applaud Bukacek for presenting her opinion. Some claim her assessments on COVID-19 are correct.

THE DECISION to remove Bukacek from the board ultimately falls to the county commissioners who appointed her. However, not only do the majority of the three commissioners have to agree on removal — something only Commissioner Phil Mitchell has thus far expressed being in favor of — but they also have to have a substantial and compelling reason to do so. The commissioners have said they are waiting on input from legal counsel on the matter.

In the meantime, Nicosia’s position is now vacant. And the public has an opportunity to weigh in on the qualifications and characteristics they believe the commissioners should look for when considering his replacement. The public also may make suggestions as to who they would like commissioners to appoint.

According to the Flathead City-County Health Department’s website, the Board of Health has many tasks and duties. The board is expected appoint a local health officer, employ necessary qualified staff, adopt by-laws to govern meetings, guard against the introduction of communicable disease and much more.

The deadline to submit letters of interest and applications for the board opening is 5 p.m. Friday, May 15, although the public may submit additional comments up until the commissioners have made their decision. Letters should be sent to the Flathead County commissioners’ office at 800 South Main Street in Kalispell.