Gallatin Co. Health Officer reflects on a year of COVID-19

In the darkness - there is light
Posted at 9:02 AM, Mar 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-17 11:02:48-04

BOZEMAN — March 13, 2021, marked the one-year anniversary that Montanans have been living with COVID-19.

In part one, MTN’s Cody Boyer showed you the levels of emotions that surged through the county and what the Gallatin City-County Health Department has seen, firsthand.

In part two of a three-part series, Cody continues his discussion with the health officer, reflecting on the negatives and positive moments of the last year.

The pandemic has brought many trials and tribulations across the entire Treasure State when it started in Gallatin County almost exactly one year ago today.

March 13, 2021, marked the one-year anniversary that Montanans have been living with COVID-19.

But for health officer Matt Kelley, with those trials also came positives, from teachers dancing in their hallways to just the small victories he says he got in his mailbox.

But it didn’t start with positives in many circumstances, like the scene at Journey Church on July 14, 2020.

Frustration that spilled from the church, across the county, during a Gallatin City-County Board of Health meeting, the first to discuss enforcing a mask mandate in Gallatin County.

And anger, some in the form of protesters in front of Matt Kelley’s home.

“It felt real and surreal at first,” Kelley says. “You don’t was more than a week. It was 20-some days. I’ll tell you, though, as unpleasant as that was and as hard as that was for my kids, that outpouring of support that we got from our neighbors and the community and people I didn’t even know was enormous.”

But in the darkness… there is light.

“People had come out onto Main Street and they were holding signs in support of the health department and support to me,” Kelley says. “That was pretty moving to see that and to feel that. That was pretty special. I’ll always remember that.”

Positive reminders of humanity, in one form hundreds of letters addressed to the health department from old and young.

“I had an eight-year-old boy send me a card of thanks and he put cash in it,” Kelley says, chuckling. “I wrote him back and I thanked him and we donated the money to the United Way and we used his name. I can’t take cash, but that was really touching, that somebody felt strongly enough, an eight-year-old felt strongly enough about it that he wanted to reach out.”

Now, Montanans know of more new terms: vaccines, distribution, Points of Dispensing, phases…

Kelley says it was hard, even for him, to see us being here after one year.

But he does remember that Friday the 13th, minutes before he learned of Montana’s first case in Gallatin County.

“Were you at that first press conference that we did at the courthouse?” Kelley asked during this interview. “We didn’t know it but later on that day, we were going to get our first case. That day, I’ll always remember and I said something during that press conference that you asked me about afterward. Be kind to one another. You said ‘That surprised me. Where did you go? Why did you say be kind to one another?’ I don’t know that I… I know that I didn’t have any conception of how difficult that the year would be and how tumultuous it would be, politically and socially, but I did have a sense that we are better together. We are better if we take care of one another than we are if we are divided and I tried to continue to stick to that. That is one thing that I’ve held onto.”

A pandemic that changed everything, but reminded Kelley and health officials on the front lines of something else: kindredship.

“As much as there are forces that are trying to tear us apart and there are situations that cause division, I am resolute and will continue to do everything that I can to get the community to work together and to bring people together.”

One year on: Gallatin Co. reflects on COVID and the impacts on life