County Health officer criticized for coronavirus comments
October 8, 2020
GILLETTE — The Campbell County Public Health officer compared people who have tested positive for COVID-19 yet break quarantine to “homegrown terrorists," a correlation that angered at least one county commissioner.
During a public comment period at the commission's Tuesday meeting, Dr. Kirtikumar Patel expressed frustration over the recent surge in cases.
On Sept. 23, there were 233 confirmed cases in Campbell County since the pandemic began. As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 362 confirmed cases.
The increase is due to the loosening of restrictions and people getting lax in observing public health guidelines like social distancing and wearing masks when appropriate, he said. He acknowledged that the longer the pandemic drags on, the more tired people will become.
Patel said Public Health Department nurses are doing everything they can to contact trace, check up on people and keep the virus from spreading.
But they can’t force anyone to stay home, and therein lies the problem, he said.
“We know people who are breaking their quarantine, who are showing up at the functions even when they’re positive,” he said. “The only analogy I can come up with is when people behave that way, they’re basically like homegrown terrorists.”
When someone who’s tested positive walks around in a store or other public place, “you’re basically leaving around” IEDs in the air for other people to walk through, Patel said.
Patel said if anyone tests positive, they should stay home until they recover.
“I understand it’s a hardship on you, but for the common good, that does need to be done,” he said.
Commissioner Del Shelstad said he took exception to Patel’s comment comparing certain members of the community to terrorists.
“I think that’s a very irresponsible thing to say,” Shelstad told Patel. “I’ve been face-to-face with a terrorist.”
Wednesday morning, Shelstad said he served as an Army Ranger in the late 1980s and early '90s and spent time in Central and South America when there was violence going on between drug cartels.
By definition, a terrorist is “a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation especially against civilians, in the pursuit of a political theme,” Shelstad said, and based on that definition, the people he dealt with back then were terrorists.
He said he understands Patel has a tough job, but “to call someone a terrorist because they don’t adhere 100% to a quarantine is irresponsible.”
For the last seven months, there's been a lot of confusion with the pandemic, he said.
"People really just don’t know what this pandemic is because on a national level and locally, it seems like things change all the time," he said. "As a public health official, you need to be a little bit more precise in your comments if you want people to take you seriously."
Tuesday evening, Shelstad posted on Facebook saying his “blood was still boiling” from the comment seven hours later.
“Calling people of this county ‘Terrorist’ because they don’t lock them selves in there home for 14 days for a virus that has a 99.97% survival rate is fundamentally and morally irresponsible,” he wrote on Facebook. “Strike the fear in the hearts of our people seems to be a redundant theme from some in our community.”
He added that the comment was “a slap in the face of our veterans who have seen terrorist up close and personal."
Patel said he was just making an analogy to try to get people to understand the seriousness of the situation.
“I’m sorry if I offended anybody, that was not my intention,” he said.
Following Patel’s comments, a local woman came to the commissioners with a concern. Patricia Duncan said she hasn’t been able to see her husband, who is at the Legacy Living and Rehabilitation Center, for seven months.
“This has gone on way too long. I think we need to make it so we can go back in and see our loved ones,” she said.
She also claimed that he was restrained to be given a COVID-19 test on at least two occasions.
“It’s almost senior abuse or senior torture, and it’s got to stop,” Duncan said.
The commissioners said while they shared her concerns, they can’t do anything about the Legacy, and they recommended she talk with the Campbell County Health Board of Trustees.
Commissioner Rusty Bell said senior long-term living facilities have been hit hard by the pandemic, with some losing 30%-50% of their populations.
“Is it better to have everybody go on and live their life and if that’s what happens, that’s what happens? I think those are the questions that Public Health and Campbell County Health are asking themselves daily,” Bell said.
“If they really were concerned about it, they need to step back and take a look,” Duncan said. “This might sound cruel, and I don’t mean for it to sound cruel, but I know my husband would rather get COVID than not be able to see me at all.”