Tip of the Spear - Missoula County

History as it happens: Documenting the COVID-19 pandemic in Missoula County

June 02, 2022 Leif Fredrickson Season 2 Episode 14
Tip of the Spear - Missoula County
History as it happens: Documenting the COVID-19 pandemic in Missoula County
Show Notes Transcript

Since 2020, Missoula County – along with the rest of the world – has been living through a major historical event. There has not been another pandemic like COVID-19 since the 1918 flu, but this time around, we have the technology to document this piece of history while it happens.  

In this episode, the commissioners talk with Leif Fredrickson, adjunct assistant professor and Director of the Public History Program at the University of Montana, about a project the County and University jointly launched to document the COVID-19 pandemic. This project seeks to create a rich collection of sources to help us understand the pandemic: how people responded to it and how decisions shaped people’s experience of the pandemic. The collection is being cataloged and made available to scholars and the public through a digital portal administered by the Archives & Special Collections Department of the Mansfield Library: http://missoula.co/coviddocumentation  

Anyone – individuals and organizations alike – can submit materials to this archive online at https://www.lib.umt.edu/asc/covid-project/default.php  

Leif has also been collecting a series of oral history interviews from officials, business leaders, non-profit administrators and community leaders around Missoula County and their experience of the pandemic. Take a listen to sections of interviews with COVID-19 Incident Commander Cindy Farr, Senator Diane Sands and Harvest Home Care CEO Kavan Peterson at http://missoula.co/oralhistoryclips  

 

Commissioner Strohmaier:

All right. Welcome back, everyone, to Tip of the Spear with your Missoula County commissioners. I'm Dave Strohmaier. I'm joined by commissioners Juanita Vero and Josh Slotnick, and today, we are delighted to have a special guest with us, Leif Fredrickson, who's an adjunct assistant professor and also director of the public history program at the University of Montana. Among other things, Leif is coordinating what has become known as the COVID-19 Documentation Project, and this is a joint effort between Missoula County, the University of Montana, and a number of other community partners. To kick things off, Leif, why don't you just introduce yourself to us and the listeners out there. Tell us a little bit about your role at the university, how you came to this project, COVID-19 documentation project, and then we can dive into some more details that folks might be interested in.

Leif Fredrickson:

All right. Sure. Well, I'm a historian, and part of the work I do is teaching at the university and part of the work I do is as a privately contracted historian. Both aspects of that work, a lot of that is related to public health, the history of public health. So at the university, I've been teaching a class on the history of pandemics. And outside of the U, one of my jobs is curating a large oral history project on the history of the Environmental Protection Agency. And I also do a lot of local history. So, I teach about Missoula history and help develop local history tours and exhibits and so on. And as a result, a lot of that local public history work, I was part of this initial group of people that got together early on in the pandemic to think about how we might document at the local level what was clearly going to be an extremely important, significant historical event. And so, part of what we did was start looking for funding. Initially, we, you know, it was volunteer and stuff, but we wanted to get more funding to allow us to more systematically collect documents and do oral histories and so on. And so last year, Commissioner Strohmaier and other people at the County were able to secure funding through the CARES Act, and that funding funds the development of a digital archive and portal that will be housed at the University of Montana archives and it funds a coordinator position, which is what I was hired to do to meet with organizations, to see what materials they have and to get those materials to the archives, and also to conduct about 20 oral histories about COVID in Missoula. So, I think it's a very exciting project for Missoula, and it's also for me personally very exciting. It brings together a lot of my professional interests and including my love of local Missoula history.

Commissioner Strohmaier:

For someone who teaches the history of pandemics, it doesn't get any better than this it would seem.

Commissioner Slotnick:

So, before we dive into our other questions here, what's public history?

Leif Fredrickson:

Good question. Public history, in a way, it's everything that's not academic history, which is publishing in academic journals. A lot of what public historians do is stuff like work at museums, develop interpretive signs that you might see around, develop historical tours, other aspects of history that engage with the general public as opposed to academics.

Commissioner Slotnick:

I see. So, the audience for public history is the public and the audience for academic history is other academics.

Leif Fredrickson:

Exactly.

Commissioner Slotnick:

So, you're chronicling history for regular people to digest.

Commissioner Strohmaier:

Yeah. And making it relevant.

Commissioner Slotnick:

Making it relevant. That's great. Since you are an historian of pandemics, how did this pandemic rhyme or not rhyme with the great flu in the early part of the 20th century?

Leif Fredrickson:

Well, that's a great question. There are a lot of similarities. I mean, their both being respiratory diseases, makes them spread very rapidly. But on the other hand, in the 1918 flu, people didn't even really understand what viruses were. There were no vaccines or anything like that. So there are some similarities and there's some similarities in terms of the politics of things like public health regulations and the extent to which people push back against those sorts of things.

Commissioner Slotnick:

Public mask burnings?

Leif Fredrickson:

Yeah, there were some of those, yep. And there were other sorts of pushback against closures of businesses and so on. There were definitely some similarities between the two.

Commissioner Strohmaier:

Leif, one other thing that comes to mind is that we're in a moment where you can actually do the work of a public historian in real time to some extent. So oftentimes it seems as though what public historians or even academic historians for that matter are caught up with is events that have taken place in distant history. So, I know of folks, I think our very own former director of the Missoula City-County Health Department, Ellen Leahy, had done some work related to the 1918 flu pandemic that Josh was just referencing. It seems as though there might have been some challenges trying to cobble together source documents from over 100 years ago to figure out what happened then to inform what is happening now. Any insights in terms of what you want to collect right now, that might make it easier for folks down the line to talk about this event as opposed to us 100 years removed from the 1918 pandemic, trying to pull together somewhat spotty documentation?

Leif Fredrickson:

Yeah, I mean, as a historian, you're often wanting more documents in some way, and that's especially true of a lot of things in the past that weren't necessarily considered to be the subjects of history. I mean, for a lot of professional historians for a long time sort of focused on presidents and military campaigns and that sort of thing, you know, more recently in the past 50 years or so, historians have focused more on what we call social history, the history of everyday people and things like pandemics and that sort of thing. And so part of what we're interested in collecting is the experiences of everyday people. So what it was like for people and people have all sorts of different backgrounds and so on and all sorts of different contexts that they live in. So getting a deep and broad sense of how this pandemic affected a lot of different individuals and groups and organizations and businesses and so on. So, and part of it is just the breadth of it, but it's also a chance to get more diversity and inclusion in the sorts of stories that we collect. One of the initial things we did before we even got funding for this was set up a way in which people could submit stories and other materials to the Mansfield archives at the University of Montana. But one of the things that this funding has allowed us to do is more systematically go out, do outreach to organizations, be more proactive in how we collect things. And I think that that will allow us to create an archive that is broader and deeper and more inclusive and diverse.

Commissioner Vero:

I want to go back to March of 2020 because I think, Strohmaier, you brought this to us, this project idea way early on, like before--yeah, I really think it was in March. We're sitting here in 206. I want to understand, like, what was your thinking? How did you get in touch with Leif? Because how did you know it was going to last this long?

Commissioner Strohmaier:

Yeah. So I guess just spinning the clock back a little bit. It was literally a couple of weeks or so into our declared emergency in March of 2020. It occurred to me, having worked as a public historian myself in the past, that we were and continue to be in the midst of a historic moment. We have not seen a public health emergency like this in a century in this country. And it struck me as odd that some of the chatter in the history world at that point was more about how do we maintain our museum operations in the midst of a pandemic? How do we keep doing what we've always done when everything is shutting down? So it was more focused on continuing to communicate and do the work that we've always done. But under these severe constraints, as opposed to thinking about how can we do the work of a historian about the very event that we're living through and capitalize on this? And it's a little bit out of the ordinary. It struck me as this is an opportunity that we should see so very early on, and this really predates a little bit of Leif's involvement and the University's involvement, had some conversations with Matt Lautzenheiser, the director of the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, and exchanged some ideas as far as we've got an incident management team, maybe we ought to have someone with a historical sensibility embedded within that and help document what is going on with the incident itself. And at some point, and maybe you remember, Leif, we broadened it up to pull together an initial group of folks. And I think you might have been involved in some of those very early discussions about how can we, more formally as a County-wide community, start at least being aware of what we need to do to document this event?

Commissioner Vero:

Are other communities doing similar projects or is Missoula County and the university kind of-

Commissioner Strohmaier:

At the tip of the spear?

Commissioner Vero:

Tip of the spear?

Leif Fredrickson:

Yeah. The project that we're doing in Missoula I think is pretty exceptional. There are a lot of communities that are doing some form of documentation. A lot of them have what I mentioned before that we set up initially, which is sort of a self submission system so people can submit their stories or photographs or something like that. But the funding that we've secured for this has allowed us to take this on in a much more systematic way and to go out to organizations, businesses, nonprofits, departments within local government and do a more thorough job of trying to find documents and collections that will be really useful. So I haven't seen something like this for other communities, this level of systematic attempt to collect things and combine it with professional oral history and so on. So it is something that's fairly exceptional for Missoula.

Commissioner Slotnick:

Leif, if you go back to the 1918, 1919 pandemic, what are some of the lessons maybe we should have learned? It feels from the outside, not being a public historian, that those events happened so long ago any sort of lessons learned that could be carried into the future got lost just to time. If you could hold the two next to each other, are there things we should have done? Because of what happened in 1918, 1919?

Leif Fredrickson:

Yeah, well, one of the things that's interesting about that is that, and a lot of people don't realize this, is that there's these federal pandemic plans that were created in the 2000s. And those became the basis of a lot of how local communities responded. And those federal pandemic plans were based in part on research that historians did on the 1918 flu. So that's a direct way in which historical research was applied to policy. And in some ways, we're trying to continue that and look at that also at the local level here. But to your question about what else might we learn from that? One of the things that really is very striking about the 1918 flu is how a lot of information was not conveyed in a very transparent way. And of course, the communication about public health issues happens at all different levels of government. But there's definitely some issues with how well public health information was conveyed during this pandemic as well that caused a lot of confusion, that produced mistrust in government and so on that I think could have been handled better.

Commissioner Vero:

That's kind of wild thinking back in 1918 the modes of communication were so less than. And then here in 2020, we can practically telepathically communicate and through both of them, we got it wrong. We weren't able to communicate well.

Commissioner Strohmaier:

Well, I mean, on the communication front, and this transcends the pandemic, COVID-19, but one of the things that were I to redo the oral history interview that I did with you, Leif, and I was one of the subjects for one of these interviews, maybe we can do a subsequent one at some point, but I can't believe that I had forgotten to mention the ways in which the pandemic has influenced and shaped the way we do communication as a county, including what we're doing right now. This podcast, maybe we would have still done this had it not been for the pandemic, but certainly it made a pretty acute need for us to how to better communicate with the public during the course of an event where we could not physically be present with folks. So that spans the breadth of what we're doing here by way of a podcast to virtual meetings, which likely will never go away. We will still do in-person meetings in the future, but I think what we learned is that from just an equity standpoint and accessibility standpoint, there was a whole chunk of the public who we might not have been communicating with as well as we could or should have. And were it not for the pandemic to kind of force our hand, we might still be doing some business as usual.

Commissioner Slotnick:

Leif I wanted to ask you a question on the communication side. So I wonder, just get your opinion on this, how much of what happened during the pandemic that kind of looks like poor communication, not from our comms folks, but sort of I'm speaking nationally here, isn't necessarily poor communication, but it's the fact that for most of our lives we've lived with scientific certainty on things. And for this moment we got to see science unfolding in real time that what we thought three months ago and we were somewhat sure of now we're not sure of because new facts emerge. And that's essentially the arc of how science works. But for most of our lives, all the big scientific things had been made solid decades, if

not centuries ago:

the idea that science was a fluid, dynamic thing kind of faded away. It's much more certain. And during the pandemic, we got to see it be fluid, dynamic, evolving right before our eyes. And I think for some people, that may have looked like poor communication or geez, obviously we need to doubt experts and go with our guts or our politics because they said this three months ago and now they don't know what they're doing when in reality, that's kind of how science works. So what do you think? Bad communication or science unfolding in real time or something in between?

Leif Fredrickson:

I think it's a mixture of those two things, and it's usually a mixture in most of the pandemics you look at in the past, really. You look at something like HIV/AIDS, I mean, that unfolded more slowly in some ways, but you had understanding of science developing in time with the spread of this pandemic and so on as well. So it is definitely both and I think it's important to try to figure out which one is happening or what combination of them is happening. And it's one of the things that in my oral histories with people I ask a lot about and partly is how do you communicate about uncertainty? Because I think that's a really important thing in terms of building trust and so on, is that you do communicate in part that there is some uncertainty there that there is some unfolding science that's happening. But it is also tricky to do that and also try to communicate there's some level of understanding that is behind regulations or other things.

Commissioner Slotnick:

If you communicate clearly about uncertainty, would you be accused of communicating poorly?

Leif Fredrickson:

Yeah. It's a real art, I think, to communicate effectively in something in a situation like this.

Commissioner Vero:

What's the most surprising thing you found in your research and documentation?

Leif Fredrickson:

I mean, there's a lot of really fascinating stories that have come out of these documents and these oral histories. One thing that has come out a lot is many people view that there's something special about Missoula in terms of its response and experience to this pandemic. That probably shouldn't surprise me in some ways, because I'm from Missoula. I love Missoula. I think Missoula is a very special place. But on the other hand, this is a global pandemic. It's the same virus that's circulating around the globe. It's the same big national issues in the economy that are bearing down on local communities. So you might think a lot of it would be very similar. And of course, there are a lot of similarities across communities, but a lot of people I talked to felt for various reasons that there is something unique or exceptional about Missoula that shaped its response to it, and people couldn't always put their finger on exactly what that was. Sometimes it had to do with more social aspects of the community. Sometimes it was about things like access to open space and so on. But there was a real sense of something special or exceptional about Missoula's response.

Commissioner Vero:

Can you say more? What do you mean by that?

Leif Fredrickson:

It was different for different people. I mean, some folks felt that there was like a very strong community aspect to Missoula, a sense of duty to others in the community that helped make the response better in Missoula. There were some other things. I mean, going back to communication, talking with Cindy Farr, who is the incident command leader for the pandemic response for the public health department, she - her regular briefings on the pandemic that she put up on YouTube, those were viewed by people nationally because she was very good at communicating exactly the sort of stuff that we were talking about. It's a very difficult thing to communicate these aspects of the pandemic as it's evolving. And she did it on a very regular basis and very effectively. So people in other communities across the nation were watching her briefings that were coming out of Missoula. There's all kinds of interesting aspects of this. I mean, I think one thing is this whole incident command system that comes out of wildfire, which is a big part of Missoula and the west, but especially Missoula, there's a lot of wildfire training out here, and that whole system comes out of response to wildfire. So I think there are a lot of different angles and that aren't necessarily all the same, but things that make Missoula's response unique or exceptional in some ways.

Commissioner Strohmaier:

Yeah, that's fascinating. And it's not lost on any of us that because Missoula and its attributes are so attractive to folks around the country that some of the economic fallout that some places were seeing, maybe were not experienced as acutely or in the same way here in Missoula as elsewhere, because we had people flocking here during the course of the pandemic because they could do business remotely. And this is a lovely place to live culturally and environmentally.

Leif Fredrickson:

Yeah. And then the flip side of that was perhaps harder housing issues in some ways.

Commissioner Strohmaier:

Oh, totally.

Commissioner Slotnick:

They got rolled together. So, in our current historical moment nationally, we see a lot more interest on the part of parents on the curriculum their children will be absorbing in schools. It seems like a piqued interest compared to a few years ago. Do you think this at all could be linked to COVID controls at schools and parents objecting this kind of "poke-a-tiger," so to speak, and now parents are much more interested in what's happening within schools than they were even, say, three or four years ago. Or am I reading something that's not there?

Leif Fredrickson:

I think that could be. I mean, I don't know for sure. And I'm actually going to - next set of oral histories I'm doing are with people associated with the schools. So maybe I'll learn more of that. That'd be a great question. But I do think that sometimes with this pandemic and other things, you have things that are not necessarily related that get rolled into some package of political identity. And so I think that that very well could be the case with this as well. Yeah.

Commissioner Vero:

How can people submit their stories or what kind of stories are you looking for?

Leif Fredrickson:

We're looking for any stories. There are kind of two aspects of people submitting things. One is individual stories or other materials, and those can be submitted directly through an online submission system. So if you go to the Missoula County COVID-19 documentation project is at

http:

//missoula.co/coviddocumentation. And if you go to the about page there, you'll see a link to submit stuff. So, if people are submitting individual stories, any story that's related to COVID, the COVID experience in Missoula, would be something we would be very interested in, and it could be stories about all kinds of things can be about your relationship with your friends during COVID. It could be about a recipe you developed during COVID. I mean, it could be all kinds of things, and it could be photos. It could be poems. So when you're talking about the individual submission, anything related to that is something we'd be interested in.

Commissioner Strohmaier:

And that's separate from the formal oral history interviews that you touched on.

Leif Fredrickson:

Yes, yes. So then we're collecting oral histories, we're going out and we have sort of developed a systematic list of people we're doing oral histories with, and then with bigger collections from organizations, that's something where I would meet with the organization and get a sense of what they have and figure out what they're willing to donate and figure out a way to transfer those larger collections to the archives.

Commissioner Slotnick:

Leif, do you see this becoming like a coffee table book or a 40-minute documentary or something that's a little more defined - a finite finished product? What do you think?

Leif Fredrickson:

I hope so. I hope so. I think there's all kinds of great products, outputs that could come out of this sort of thing. And part of making it this public archive that will be accessible to all kinds of people is that people can do all kinds of different things like that with it. As part of this particular project, we're going to do a little report that reflects on the way that we went about it, which hopefully could inform other communities or our communities and future collections.

Commissioner Slotnick:

Meta public history.

Leif Fredrickson:

Yeah. But then beyond that, we're really hoping that either we as a county or other groups or some combination will use these documents to develop reports and coffee table books and all kinds of other things that will engage the public in various ways.

Commissioner Slotnick:

Do you anticipate presentation for Missoula?

Leif Fredrickson:

Yes, we could certainly do that. Yeah.

Commissioner Strohmaier:

I guess one additional, I don't know that this is a product so much as thinking about process in the future, this may or may not be the last big crisis that we face in a while. Something tells me something else will pop up and at some point what pops up might be of equal significance. I mean, there's plenty of times that we spin up an incident command team, whether it's for flooding on the Clark Fork or Bitterroot Rivers or wildfire. And those are fairly transient moments that you need a full court press for a couple of weeks and then it dissipates. It's gone. There might be events that come up like the COVID-19 pandemic that truly are not just community-wide, but regional, national, even international significance that we would equally want to bring the brunt of our documentation, skills and expertise to bear. And so one thing that's struck me is, as we're reflecting on having lived through this, are there ways in which we should, like the COVID-19 pandemic, have a public historian embedded in an incident command team so that we're not just making this up as we go, which is kind of what we did this last go around, but prime ourselves for the possibility that if necessary, we can hit the go button and we can drag those academic faculty members or public historians out of the university over here and put them into service. I don't know. What do you think about that?

Leif Fredrickson:

I think that sounds great. I mean, yeah, I mean, I think that this project can have all sorts of different things that come out of it. And part of that is just like a broader level of people really want to understand and explain a major event like this. But also it can be almost like a community-wide after-action report where - these after action reports are often these sort of things that are done by agencies or departments after some event like this, but not usually done at the community level, but that might be helpful for something like this that reaches and affects so many aspects of the community. So I think it could be very useful for that sort of thing. And I think that approach, an historical approach that has a very sort of holistic view of how these sorts of things unfold over time would be a useful thing, both to bring to something like an incident command team, to offer some advice, but also to document that particular crisis and use that again in the future for other crises.

Commissioner Vero:

So before we close, this is our favorite question. What's a good book or nugget of wisdom you've come across that you'd like to share with us?

Leif Fredrickson:

I just recently finished reading this book called Thinking in Time, and it's by a c ouple--.

Commissioner Vero:

Thinking in Time, or and Time?

Leif Fredrickson:

Thinking in Time. Yeah, it's by a couple of historians and it's basically a book of case studies about how leaders have used history to guide decision making, for better or for worse. There's kind of this classic saying that people who don't know history are doomed to repeat it. Turns out it's a little bit more complicated than that. The upshot is that history is incredibly useful for helping guiding decision makers, but we also have to be careful about how we use it or how it's applied. A lot of these case studies are very high level, like presidential decision kind of stuff, and that's very interesting. It's fascinating and it's got obvious applications to something like this project here. It's also some great food for thought in a way, for our own personal lives, because in many ways we're kind of our own historian applying our past experiences to the present as we go through life. So it works on a lot of different ways in thinking about how history or the past can be used to sort of improve or positively engage with the present or the future.

Commissioner Slotnick:

Thinking in Time. Cool. Sounds great.

Commissioner Strohmaier:

Yeah.

Commissioner Vero:

Yeah. Thank you so much for joining us. That's it. Thanks, everyone. We'll talk to you next week.