U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., outlined the importance of a phased reopening of the Montana economy while discussing COVID-19 relief efforts on Capitol Hill during a virtual chat with the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday morning.
Daines said the good news is that Montana has seen a steady decline in confirmed COVID-19 cases – with zero reported on Sunday and just four on Monday – but the bad news is the statewide shutdown has resulted in 75,000 unemployed Montanans.
“We prepared for the worst but thankfully the worst didn’t happen,” Daines said. He said it is time to consider the first phase in a three-phase reopening.
Daines said he has been in frequent contact with Kalispell Regional Healthcare Chief Executive Officer Craig Lambrecht, and one of the first things he would like to see is to “get elective surgeries started again.” He said Kalispell Regional Medical Center has 200 beds open out of 300, and is treating just one COVID-19 patient.
Daines added that some of the postponed elective surgeries “don’t sound very elective to me.” One woman he talked to, for example, had to put off a surgery for her early-stage breast cancer.
The senator said the reopening process could be faster for some Montana counties and slower for others, especially as President Trump does not want a “heavy-handed, top-down approach.” Nearly half of Montana’s counties have not reported a single confirmed case of COVID-19, whereas Gallatin County has 145 confirmed cases to date.
Daines also said having a large number of unemployed Montanans could lead to a different public-health crisis, including an increase in alcohol abuse, drug abuse, domestic abuse and suicide.
“We do know when people are isolated and disengaged with community and have suicidal thoughts” the odds of a suicide attempt increase, Daines said.
He said the second phase of reopening might include opening parks and schools, including Glacier National Park, and said gateway communities are the ones who should have the say as to when the national parks reopen.
Daines said Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt will “yield to what people on the ground are saying” and is waiting for gateway communities to “give him the green light.”
THE SENATOR also discussed his work in Washington attempting to secure funding for small businesses. He said he told Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin “we need government to move at the speed of business” when it comes to getting relief payments out of the Small Business Administration.
He said the first package – the $2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act passed March 26 that contained $377 billion for small businesses – was less of a stimulus or relief package and more like a “CPR package” to just keep businesses alive.
“I’d rather have it [the Small Business Administration loan program] out fast and be a bit buggy than get it out slow,” Daines said. He said he has heard complaints from business owners about technical glitches when applying for payments, and told owners to get in touch with his office in Kalispell if they have any problems with the program.
Daines touted the $10 billion he secured for advanced research and development in biomedical science within the federal government. He said the government will be working with the private sector to “help us cut the time to market for vaccines by about four to six months.”
He said scientific investment will be “really important to prevent a second-wave pandemic,” explaining the second wave of the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic was even deadlier than the first wave.
Daines added he wants to see widespread testing, and said serology testing will be especially important. He said effective serology testing will be able to tell who has already developed the antibodies in response to an infection.
“We need to know who all of these individuals are,” he said, and suggested individuals with antibodies might be able to return to work sooner than other individuals.
He added five companies are working on serology tests and that they have the capacity to make “millions of these tests” available to Americans.