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Butte's new epidemiologist talks horror films, heritage, and the pandemic

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Spooky October is Amanda Marinovich’s top month.

Amanda is a numbers person, and a words person, too. She likes her data in order and her poetry nostalgic.

She’ll stab you — with a tattoo gun. And she’s one of those people who always find their way back home to the Mining City.

Amanda Marinovich

Amanda Marinovich

Now she’s Butte-Silver Bow Health Department’s first in-house epidemiologist — a new hire for a new time.

Her job is to study the spread of illness, the pinnacle of which is a global pandemic. Needless to say, she’s been busy.

But let’s get back to October, when the ghouls come out.

For any diehard horror movie buff, October is time to push things to the eerie extreme. For Amanda, that means watching a horror movie every night of the month with her sweet sidekick, Missy the pit bull, by her side.

She recently re-watched one of her all-time favorites, the flick that put October on the map — the original Halloween.

"The best horrors — like Halloween — they don't show you,” she said.

Picture the camera slowly teasing some unsuspecting teenager’s impending doom, the ominous music.

“It's not about the gore — it’s about the fear,” she said with glee.  

Still, Amanda’s a horror buff, not a horror snob.

“There are times I want a dumb monster and buckets of blood,” she said. “But the great horror, it’s all in the story.”

The new gig

October is central to Amanda’s story, and not just for slasher films.

October a year ago, virus cases suddenly spiraled out of control, and people in Butte started dying from COVID for the first time. Devastating October led the way for COVID mitigation mandates in November.  

As for many in healthcare these days, managing the pandemic is really Amanda’s only job right now.

This October, cases are climbing again. It’s different this time. Certain mandates aren’t allowed anymore. But this go-around, Butte-Silver Bow is a leader among the state with 64% of its eligible population vaccinated.  

And now Amanda’s in the Butte office, hired as part of a state effort to provide counties their own epidemiologists — something folks at the Health Department have been looking forward to for some time.

Amanda gets the real numbers direct from real sick people.

“We've had this issue throughout the whole pandemic of what's real data and what's not. Part of my drive is that desire to get real information to people, and to be able to interpret what it means. To say, here's these numbers, this is what they're saying," she said.

In addition to tallying case numbers and symptoms, Amanda is diving into trends. She and other epidemiologists on the state are looking at the effectiveness of masks in schools by comparing the areas they’ve been mandated to where they have not been.

She’s started looking into the link between wildfire smoke and COVID caseloads, where respiratory vulnerability overlaps.

It’s also her job to find avenues to get information into the hands of people — going beyond weekly reports to address small groups, so that the community can share that information from within.

“When it’s your loved ones telling you that they’re concerned for people’s safety and health and well-being, I think it can hit differently,” she said.    

The fight is important, but hard.

“I feel for the contract tracers, because they’re just doing their job, just trying to keep people safe, and the verbal abuse that they’re having to deal with on a daily basis is not right,” she said.

Marinovich said many in healthcare have left the battle, out of frustration and fatigue. For a long time they’ve met with harsh adversity from members of the public and been close to sickness and death. Others have left due to the requirement of vaccination, she said.  

There’s a bright side. Many people just want expert guidance, and Amanda and her colleagues get to provide it.     

“The amount of people that just want some peace of mind, just want information — and they’re so grateful — they change your day around. They make it all worth it,” she said.

Amanda fell for epidemiology while studying statistics and data science at Montana Tech. Most roads led to business, and one into the heart of the pandemic.

“I felt like epidemiology was a way that you can actually help people in a real way,” she said.

Bold lines

Back when Amanda was a tattoo artist, she favored the neo-traditional style.

“Sailor kind of stuff,” she said. “Real bold lines, solid colors, that sort of thing.”

“It’s like the oldest art form,” she added. “I think it connects our bodies to our mental states in this really amazing way. And the act of being tattooed is very meditative.”

Spoken like a person who likes movies with chainsaws.

In Amanda’s 36 years, she tattooed, she bartended, did the food service thing. She played college soccer at University of Mary in Bismarck, North Dakota, studied literature at University of Montana. She once found herself in Wyoming for the summer, digging up artifacts left by people who migrated across the west over 1,000 years ago.

She’s connected with a lot of people, but never found a stronger connection than she had to the people of Butte.

"What I miss when I'm not here is walking down the street, and having someone say ‘Hi,’ and you end up having a conversation. That just doesn't happen other places," she said.

Amanda’s great-grandfather and his brothers came to Butte from modern-day Croatia, and over the years her distant family members worked in Butte’s famous copper mines.

Butte became a melting pot within a melting pot. From the Balkans region of southeastern Europe, came people from modern-day Serbia, Croatia and elsewhere.

In the 1990s, nationalistic propaganda tore the Balkans apart in unfathomable violent conflict.

To say, at any point in time, Serbs and Croats all hated one another would be a lie and an insult, but there are still people claiming Serb or Croat identify with prejudice today.            

Her parents went to Croatia a few years ago, Amanda said, and some of the Croats they met couldn’t believe her parents had Serb friends back in Butte.

“Once you're here, those kind of lines don't really matter, do they?” Amanda observed.

“Here we're all ‘Viches’ so we've got to stick together," she added with a laugh.  

The road to Halloween

There are bold lines that connect us all in the end. For example, everybody’s sick and tired of this virus.

Is it any different for the epidemiologist cutting her teeth during a global pandemic?

“I'd be just so relieved when this is done with and we can start looking at other things that are affecting the community. There's so many little epidemics that we aren't even able to even look at and address,” she said

There are all the other illnesses, the social epidemics. There are the environmental health impacts of living in a Superfund complex.     

“I think this community is going to really benefit from having someone looking at the data, and then, when data drives the policy, getting funding and attention where it's needed. But I don't have time to look at anything else until this goes away," she said.

She believes in her work wholeheartedly — she stares the statistics in the face all day every day.

But like everyone else, Amanda is hoping for a plateau. She’s hoping vaccinations and personal responsibility will prevail, and this October won’t end up like the last one.

In the meantime, she’ll be hiking with Missy and digging through data until Michael Myers’ big day.

And on Halloween?

“Stay home and eat candy,” she said. “You know, watch a horror movie.”

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