Riddell faces criticism, family life as public health officer

JACKSON — Dr. Travis Riddell had quietly served Teton County as an appointed health officer since 2012 before the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic thrust public health into the spotlight, elevating his role to celebrity status and forcing additional hours, conversations and controversy into his already hectic life. Fortunately, the service aligns with his passions.

“When I stepped into the role I didn’t even realize what sort of statutory authorities came with it,” he told the News&Guide during a recent drive home from seeing young patients in Victor, Idaho — one of the few free windows you’re likely to catch him in. “I decided to take the role because I’m really interested in public health.

“You know, for someone who cares about population health issues in general, there’s no more effective way to address that than with population-level policy and intervention.”

As health officer Riddell is charged with keeping the community safe, a responsibility that often involves hours of research into the latest advisories from federal and state health departments. Throughout the fast-changing pandemic, those recommendations have been at times divergent and confusing, and his responsibility for understanding and informing the public has been challenged by the controversy of cautionary measures like masking and vaccines.

“In this day and age there’s a little bit more controversy swirling around everything public health related, myself included,” Riddell said.

As a primary physician for Jackson Pediatrics, Riddell has those conversations 20 times a day with uneasy parents searching for clarity and guidance. In the comfort of a doctor’s office there is space for nuance and understanding — nuance that is sometimes lost when those same recommendations are issued from on high, whether through Dr. Anthony Fauci at the federal level or Dr. Riddell at the county level.

People have, at times, taken out their pandemic frustrations by pointing the finger at health officials, accusing them of blindly following the pipeline of information or blaming officials for imposing restrictions they see as unnecessary. Some of that criticism comes from the self-informed, independent research many are doing on social media. Health officers in other counties share the same concern: Misinformation, sometimes intentionally distributed, is clouding people’s judgment and undermining trust in science and experts.

While Teton County residents appear to be more informed than surrounding communities in the Mountain West, the county also has some of the strictest restrictions, and some people are fed up.

Last week, following an organized campaign to pressure county officials to drop the mask mandate, residents staged a protest on Town Square with the same mission. One of the signs read, “Travis Riddell is not my mother.”

The health officer said he’s able to stomach criticism by compartmentalizing, something he does daily as a physician dealing with trauma and death.

“I deal with some really, really tough situations and tragedy and really sad family situations, and sometimes really sad health outcomes,” Riddell said. “And I’ve learned to sort of find ways to leave that behind when I walk in the door at night and see my family.

“I don’t think you could sleep at night if you let all of that get to you at a deep level.”

When it comes to his family, Riddell has two young children he’s trying to protect — both from the coronavirus and from some of the harshness of his job. On Veterans Day, Casey, 7, and Lauren, 5, were both vaccinated against COVID-19.

Despite the state Legislature’s decision last summer to limit the power of county health officers, Riddell is still conscious of his elevated status in the community. In 2020 he was named Business Person of the Year. This past October the Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce named him Citizen of the Year. Few in public health have managed to remain as popular.

“You look around the country, and many public health officials — career public health officials — are stepping aside because of all of the pressure and criticism and sort of animosity toward what public health folks are trying to do,” Riddell said. “And you know, I’m not fully immune to that, by any means, no matter how much I can compartmentalize.

“I wonder if sometimes it would be nice for my family to not have that, but at the same time I feel like I’ve made my commitment to do this. And I feel like it’s sort of my duty to the community at this point to see us through.”

With his appointment up for renewal Nov. 16, Riddell expressed renewed eagerness to lead Jackson Hole out of the pandemic.

“I don’t think there will be a day where we can point to and say that’s when the pandemic ended,” he said. “But, you know, [it will] hopefully more and more just be a background thing and less dominant in all of our lives. We are all looking forward to that, I’m quite sure.”