FERGUS FALLS, Minn. — A Fergus Falls surgeon is no longer working at Lake Region Healthcare after comments he made Oct. 11 at a school board listening session about a mask mandate for students in the city's elementary schools.
The board established a two-week mandate at the schools that expired on Friday, Oct. 22, as a COVID-19 mitigation measure because younger children weren't eligible for the vaccine.
In the midst of the mandate last week, the board held the special meeting to listen to residents.
At that meeting, Dr. Jeff Horak, who worked at the city's hospital for 16 years, spoke in favor of "parental freedom" to choose whether their children wear masks in school.
"This mandate across the board, that's a tough place to go," said Horak, still wearing his hospital scrubs during his five-minute speech.
"Who does God put in charge of their kids? Their parents," he said. "God gave each one of these kids to their parents. Their parents speak for them, and they may be wrong, dumb or perfect in their decision-making, but it's still their responsibility.
"It's their responsibility, not yours."
The crowd, largely in favor of removing the mask mandate, loudly applauded Horak's comments.
However, in responding to questions later in the week after the meeting, Lake Region Health CEO Kent Mattson made it clear that Dr. Naomi Schmid was the only person authorized to speak on their behalf at the meeting. Her position in favor of children wearing masks was echoed by General Surgeon Dr. Julianne Gutzmer and Cardiologist Dr. JoEllen Kohlman-Petrick, who each spoke on their own accord at the meeting.
Schmid told the board that masks were proven to help in the fight against COVID-19.
She argued against the suggestion by some at the meeting that children weren't in danger from the coronavirus.
She said pediatric hospitalizations and intensive care admissions have "continued to climb since July" in Minnesota.
"Locally, we have had children sick enough that they had to be transferred to other hospitals," Schmid said.
The virus, she said, has caused deaths "right here in our community, and it continues to circulate."
With conflicting arguments to the School Board, Mattson said in a statement that Lake Region was in the process of reviewing the situation. In fact, he said, they were looking at the entirety of Horak's comments.
At one point, some residents thought Horak delivered a racial slur in reference to the 20 years he spent working in Detroit, Michigan.
"Fixing your ulcer ... I just put the two sides together," he said. "Anybody could do it. Monkeys could do it. Monkeys do it in Detroit."
Horak said he didn't even know the brief comment could be viewed as derogatory or racist. He said he was "literally talking about monkeys."
School Board President Melanie Cole said she didn't hear the words during the meeting but had several people complain to her about the "distasteful comment" after the meeting.
Although Horak said he and Lake Region have a clause in their contract that stipulates they can't talk about why he is no longer working there, one Fergus Falls resident, Amanda Davison, said she and others in the community believe it was about his viewpoint over masking that was expressed at the meeting.
Davison, a counselor, said it was "very concerning" that the doctor could lose his job because he stood up for his personal beliefs and other parents who were at the meeting and against his colleagues.
"The community is losing a well-respected, phenomenal surgeon," she said.
In a statement released Thursday by Mattson, he said Horak worked for the Lake Region Medical Group, which provided the notice to the Lake Regional Heathcare system.
"We sincerely appreciate Dr. Horak's 16 years of service to our patients and our organizations and we wish him the best as he transitions his practice from here," Mattson said.
He said the hospital still had a "complement of talented and dedicated general surgeons who will ensure we have surgical coverage in place to provide uninterrupted services for all patient needs."