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Missoulian editorial

Take on COVID together: Public health hinges on smooth transition between administrations

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Depending on your point of view, Gov. Steve Bullock has either done a stellar job of slowing the spread of coronavirus in Montana, overreached to slow the spread, or not done nearly enough. In any case, as his administration prepares to hand the reins over to Governor-elect Greg Gianforte, it’s clear Montana is increasingly struggling to handle rising case numbers.

Hospitals, government officials and front-line workers are sounding the alarm as they brace for the worst. Montanans — and our elected leaders — must listen to them, and take action now. In order for that action to be effective, however, those leaders must work together.

There’s no time to waste. Montana recorded all-time high active case numbers three days in a row last week. The death toll is fast approaching 500 individuals. For those who like to make such comparisons, there have been 175 vehicle deaths on Montana highways thus far this year. Influenza and pneumonia killed a total 79 Montanans during the 2017-18 flu season — long before COVID-19, with its similar symptoms, arrived on the scene.

Missoula County Public Schools is experiencing a spike in cases that already has caused staffing shortages as more education workers are forced into quarantine. In Ravalli County, Stevensville Schools had to close for two weeks when it couldn’t find enough COVID-free staff to fill its classrooms. And last week, emergency room physicians at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital in Hamilton wrote a letter to the community warning that local medical resources are at risk of being overwhelmed as hospitals throughout the region reach their capacity to treat critically ill patients.

“We are on the brink of disaster,” the letter reads. “As the number of patients ill with COVID surges, local hospitals are approaching — and with increasing frequency reaching — their bed capacities. This means that our ability to safely care for patients is becoming compromised. We have treated patients with life-threatening illnesses such as heart attacks that we can't appropriately transfer because of the overcapacity of ALL hospitals in our region.”

Meanwhile, throughout Montana, many service-oriented businesses have severely curtailed their hours, and their staff, while others have closed completely. Thousands of families are hanging on by a thread, relying on unemployment benefits or other assistance from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to see them through what is shaping up to be an especially long, hard winter.

Up until the recent spike in case numbers, since the beginning of the pandemic’s arrival in the state, Montana managed to maintain one of the lower rates of coronavirus infection rates in the nation, thanks in large part to the mandates and recommendations put in place early on and supported by Governor’s Coronavirus Task Force, not to be confused with his Coronavirus Relief Fund Advisory Council that has helped direct the spending of some $1.25 billion in federal funding provided under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

Governor Bullock declared a state of emergency in mid-March, immediately implemented mandates for face coverings in schools and other public settings, and set out guidelines for phased closures and goals for reopenings.

Last week, as part of his regular public updates on COVID-19, Governor Bullock discussed how his team will assist the incoming administration in responding to the coronavirus. Meanwhile, Governor-elect Gianforte announced the formation of his own COVID-19 Task Force, consisting of 21 members representing an array of business, health, school, law enforcement, tribal and local government interests across Montana.

That is, except for Missoula. Notably absent from the list of names is any representation from a resident of Montana’s second-largest city, one that happens to offer an abundance of cutting-edge research and world-renowned scientific resources thanks to the presence of the state’s flagship institution of higher education.

His task force can and should hear from Missoulians — as well as from residents of Flathead County, which has been disproportionately hit by the virus and which also lacks representation on the new COVID-29 panel; and from smaller counties in western Montana such as Mineral County, where roughly half the sheriff’s office were recently quarantined after prolonged exposure to someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Gianforte said his task force will work with local and state public health officials to offer recommendations. This task force will thus be a critical conduit between average Montanans and the Governor’s Office — a line that is especially important given that just last month, before he won election by a handy margin, Gianforte had promised to “emphasize personal responsibility over mandates."

It’s concerning that one member of his task force, Cascade County Sheriff Jesse Slaughter, was involved in an argument with Cascade County District Court judges over the statewide mask requirement, calling the mandate “highly contentious and debatable.” Overall, the task force is too light on medical experts with direct experience in infectious diseases, such as an epidemiologist; committee members and the state as a whole need to hear from our best medical professionals during this historic health crisis.

On the other hand, it’s promising that at least one member of Bullock’s task force has also been named to Gianforte’s group “to ensure continuity between administrations,” as noted by a spokeswoman for Gianforte’s transition. Adj. Gen. Matthew Quinn, commander of the Montana Air National Guard, has direct experience directing multi-agency emergency response. Another new member, Montana Nonprofit Association Executive Director Liz Moore, serves on Bullock's Coronavirus Relief Fund Task Force.

Such connections are crucial because Montana is in the midst of a public health crisis and cannot afford to spend months building up an effective response, only to swerve in a new direction with the swearing-in of a new administration. Bullock’s team is in a position to put things in place right now so that Gianforte can continue to build on them when he takes office. The current administration must spend its remaining time in office working closely with the next to ensure a smooth transition — and protect public health.

This editorial represents the views of the Missoulian Editorial Board: Publisher Jim Strauss, Regional Editor David McCumber and Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen. 

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