Ottawa Co. Board offers top health job to anti-masker — but state must approve 

Attorney general launches ‘extensive review’ into the board’s actions

By: - January 5, 2023 1:30 pm

Ottawa County Board of Commissioners meeting, Jan. 3, 2023 | Screenshot

The far-right Republicans who have taken their place on the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners and made sweeping changes to departments this week want Nathaniel Kelly, who has railed against masking to stop the spread of COVID-19, to lead the county health department. 

However, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) said county officials haven’t submitted evidence of Kelly’s qualifications in order to get approved by the state. 

Kelly, 39, of Jamestown Township in West Michigan, is the safety manager for the Pluene Service Company in Grand Rapids, a heating ventilation and air conditioning business. Kelly did not return a call seeking comment for this story.

Nathaniel Kelly | Screenshot

A local governing entity needs to submit evidence of qualifications to MDHHS to appoint a new health officer, including the candidate’s resume and transcripts,” said DHHS spokesperson Lynn Sutfin. “At the time of this response, MDHHS has not received a request from Ottawa County.”

State law requires that county health officers have a master’s degree in public health and at least three years of full-time public health administrative experience; a related graduate degree and five years of full-time public health administrative experience; or have a bachelor’s degree and eight years of full-time public health experience, five years of which must have been in the administration of a broad range of public health programs.

Kelly did not respond to a request for comment.

Commissioners on Tuesday said Kelly has a master’s degrees of science in public health and occupational health from Columbia Southern University, an online university based in Alabama.

In August, Kelly was a speaker at an event hosted by the far-right group Stand Up Michigan, America’s Frontline Industrial Hygienists & Multidisciplinary Support Summit, where he outlined his plans for COVID-19 mitigation.

On the poster for the event, Kelly was listed as an occupational, environmental health and safety professional and a public health professional. 

Kelly’s mitigation plan includes sending out kits of vitamins, minerals, a neti pot and ivermectin, a drug usually used to treat head lice or parasitic worms in humans, horses and other livestock. Misinformation fueled by right-wing figures and people who are anti-vaccination has some convinced that ivermectin can treat COVID-19, but doctors warn there is no evidence of that and misusing the drug comes with serious health risks.

Kelly also said he would direct businesses to update their HVAC systems, and he would refuse to implement masking, social distancing or testing requirements for infectious diseases, which national health experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci have repeatedly noted are effective in stopping the spread of COVID and other contagious diseases. 

A new study the Commonwealth Fund and Yale School of Public Health found that more than 3 million lives in the U.S. were likely saved and 18.5 million people were kept out of the hospital thanks to COVID-19 vaccines.

DHHS reports a total of 2,998,447 Michiganders have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. In total, 40,836 people have died from the virus.

Ottawa County has had 86,644 reported COVID cases and 896 deaths.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services | Susan J. Demas

Sutfin did not respond to a question on whether Kelly’s unproven methods to address widespread infectious diseases, like COVID-19, would play a role in the DHHS’ decision to approve his qualifications.

The county board voted 7-1 Tuesday to name Kelly the next administrative health officer after ousting Adeline Hambley during a five-hour meeting. 

During that meeting, the board also voted to fire County Administrator John Shay and appoint John Gibbs, who lost Nov. 8 in the 3rd Congressional District to Democrat U.S. Rep Hillary Scholten; eliminate its Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department; and change the county motto from “Where You Belong” to “Where Freedom Rings.”

On Wednesday, Attorney General Dana Nessel’s office said the department is conducting an “extensive review” to investigate whether the Board violated the Open Meetings Act Tuesday after several agenda items were added after the start of the meeting. 

Nessel’s office said they “will make our findings public upon completion.”


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Allison R. Donahue
Allison R. Donahue

Allison R. Donahue is a former Michigan Advance reporter who covered education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.