MISSOULA — University of Montana football players who took to Twitter to question the Missoula City-County Health Department's coronavirus quarantine restrictions — and who broadcast the county's COVID-19 incident commander's cell number — have since apologized, according to the UM athletic director.
The athletes also repeatedly texted Incident Commander Cindy Farr with their frustrations over the quarantine procedures.
Thursday, UM Athletic Director Kent Haslam said a group of football players had sent the tweets and texts, and an apology by the student-athletes had already been sent to the Health Department and to Farr specifically. Haslam said on Friday evening he was aware of two text messages sent by student-athletes to Farr.
The tweets from players arose during Thursday's Missoula City-County Health Department COVID-19 update.
After the meeting, Health Officer Ellen Leahy said in a Missoulian interview the onslaught of texts and tweets hampers the health department's ability to focus on its larger goal of contact tracing and overall community safety.
"Missoula is largely civil," Leahy said. "But I don't want to downplay the ones that aren't civil. They take a toll. They take a toll on our time."
Leahy stressed that the public should send messages with concerns, questions or comments to the Health Department's feedback portal. Tying up the phones lines, she said, only slows down the Health Department's priorities.
Leahy said once the Health Department reached out to UM, the tweets and messages to Farr's phone number stopped. On Thursday, Haslam said there'd already been a discussion — which he described as positive — with the players involved. None of the communications from the student-athletes were threatening.
"I made contact with those student-athletes and told them that was not the greatest way to deal with this issue," Haslam said. "They recognized that. We asked them to stop, and they stopped."
The official Health Department Twitter account does not tweet much, but the tweets from UM football players prompted a response from officials. Allison Franz is the communications manager for Missoula County and has access to the health department's social media accounts.
The players had tagged both the Missoula City-County Health Department and the Missoula County account. Franz decided to comment when the tweets began to be shared widely.
More than anything, county officials were trying to combat misinformation.
"I'm just a big believer in meeting people where they're at and if that plays with social media and that's where they're asking us questions, I want to be responsive to that," Franz said. "We can use that as another venue to get accurate information out."
The first post, from redshirt freshman Kale Edwards read, "@MslaHealthDept @MissoulaCounty and Cindy Farr Total deaths in MT from COVID to date: 143 State pop 1,070,000 By age group: ZERO deaths under 30 1 death under 40 5 total deaths under 50 But let’s quarantine the 18-22 year old football team?"
A response from the Missoula health department account to Edwards said:
"Hi, Kale, the continuing presence of COVID is frustrating for our community, and it's especially frustrating for those who have to quarantine even when they test negative. For close contacts to a positive case, a negative test on a particular day merely indicates you do not have COVID on that day. Since this specific virus has an incubation period of 14 days, close contacts must remain in quarantine for the full 14 days because they could develop symptoms at any time during those 14 days. People can also be contagious for two days before they show symptoms. We know this is hard, but the more we can do now to isolate the virus and stop the spread, the sooner we can get back to normal life. Thank you."
Another tweet from another football player, Ryder Meyer, prompted a similar response from the Health Department. As of Wednesday, there were 72 total positive cases on campus with 56 currently active.
Sports during the pandemic have been a topic under much discussion, as frustration from high school and college athletes and parents has boiled over in a variety of ways. Last week, student-athletes and parents from high schools from Missoula protested outside the Health Department in regards to spectator rules.
The Health Department is expected to soon release updated spectator guidelines. Social distancing and mask usage has also been a topic at schools around the state, with some places having stricter rules than others.
"We understand other people are having their lives disrupted. That comes with the territory," Leahy said. "But when you get a barrage of misinformation, or being asked the same question over and over and over when the answer isn't changing, and then there's misinformation about the disease itself, that's a real distraction from what our priorities are."
The long-term effects of COVID-19 are still unclear, but deaths and serious hospitalizations have occurred in young people. Earlier this month Jamain Stephens, a college football player, died of a blood clot after being hospitalized with COVID-19 and pneumonia, the New York Times reported.
Earlier this month the UM athletic training facility — The Champions Center — was shut down for four days due to a positive cases among student athletes. On Sept. 21 the Montana Kaimin reported that the entire Grizzly men's and women's cross-country teams were under quarantine.
"I think we all have COVID fatigue. And certainly the people at the City-County Health Department, while I can't speak for them, I know how hard they are working, how hard we all are working at the university," Haslam said. "It's a time when we just got to have increased patience and work hard to be together on these things. And I imagine it's difficult to be quarantined."
The Missoulian's Cameron Evans and Frank Gogola contributed to this report.