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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Gianforte, Cooney Set Priorities For Health Amid Pandemic, Details Few

Montana gubernatorial candidates (L to R) Greg Gianforte and Mike Cooney.
Montana gubernatorial candidates (L to R) Greg Gianforte and Mike Cooney.

It's less than two weeks before election day and Montana on Thursday again set a new record for COVID-19 cases reported in a single day with more than 900. Whoever is elected as Montana's next governor will inherit oversight of the state's response to the pandemic. Yellowstone Public Radio's Nicky Ouellet and Rachel Cramer discuss what the candidates are and aren't saying about how they'd handle the public health crisis.

Nicky Ouellet: Current Gov. Steve Bullock flexed executive emergency powers in March when he issued a stay home order to curb the spread of COVID-19. He’s also mandated face coverings, restricted crowd sizes, ordered a phased reopening plan for businesses, though he’s turned to counties to do the bulk of the enforcement work on those.

Rachel, how are candidates Democrat Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney and Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte approaching the public health side of coronavirus response in their campaign pitch points?

Rachel Cramer: Gianforte told me this week over email he’s holding off on developing a plan for managing the health side of the virus and an anticipated vaccine until he has a clearer picture of what we’re facing closer to when he’d assume office. He said he’ll rely on advice of public health professionals and community leaders.

Mike Cooney Monday did release what he called his priorities for continued management of the COVID-19 pandemic, acquiring and distributing a vaccine and helping Montanans return safely to work. He said these priorities were formed after consultation with top public health experts and will be used to develop a later plan.

Nicky Ouellet: Did anything stand out?

Rachel Cramer: Well, Cooney said he would advocate for additional energy bill subsidies for low income families so they can keep the heat on if they need to quarantine. He said he’d work with local public health departments and county commissioners to develop mask and gathering mandates that balance both public health and the economy.

In his “Keep Montana Healthy” plan released in August, Cooney said he’d work with lawmakers to pass legislation that would require insurance companies to fully cover the cost of COVID-19 testing and treatment for Montanans. He said he would also implement infectious disease standards for workplaces.

A lot of what was listed as his pandemic priorities this week are already happening.

Nicky Ouellet: Like what?

Rachel Cramer: Like making sure hospitals are fully equipped to handle more cases this winter and work with the National Guard to transport sick patients to hospitals during extreme weather.

Cooney didn’t provide a lot of details on where funding would come from. A lot of the current disease mitigation work in Montana is covered with federal coronavirus relief money, which can only be used through the end of the year unless Congress extends the deadline or approves more funds.

Cooney says he’s proud of the COVID-19 response he and Gov Bullock stood up, and he says the economy is coming back.

“Throughout this pandemic, I’ve worked virtually non stop to help lead our state through this crisis, and as governor, keeping Montana healthy is going to be my number one priority," Cooney said during a round table event Monday.

Cooney has emphasized that the economy can’t recover if workers and consumers are sick.

Gianforte on the other hand, says his top priority as Montana’s next governor would be economic recovery while protecting the most vulnerable from the coronavirus and making sure a future vaccine would be widely available and accessible.

While touring the Montana State University COVID-19 testing lab last month, he said it’s important to have diagnostic testing and praised the collaboration between MSU and the state for increasing Montana’s capacity to run tests.

“Maybe by the end of this year or early next year, we’ll have vaccines at scale for those, particularly our front line health workers and others that may be vulnerable to an infection that would have severe consequences," Gianforte said.

But he’s been short on details for how to accomplish all these priorities.

Nicky Ouellet: Did Gianforte say if he would remove the statewide mask mandate and business capacity limits?

Rachel Cramer: In an email response, he wouldn’t say if he’d remove those mandates, but again he said we don’t know where we’ll be three months from now.

Gianforte did say he would emphasize providing Montanans guidance over imposing government mandates.

Nicky Ouellet: This summer while on a call with constituents Gianforte mentioned a conversation he’d had with a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, who said the rate of COVID-19 infections was high enough that the country could achieve what’s called herd immunity by the end of this year. Gianforte framed that as good news on that July call.

Rachel Cramer: Natural herd immunity is the idea that if enough people catch an infectious disease and then become immune, it will no longer spread. But infectious disease experts say that to get to that point without a vaccine, hundreds of millions of Americans would need to get infected and A LOT of people would die.

I asked Gianforte if his views have changed on herd immunity, especially now as hospitals are facing capacity issues with the rise in cases, and he said via email QUOTE “I believe the best course forward is to reduce the spread of the virus and do everything we can to deliver a safe, reliable vaccine.” END QUOTE

Nicky Ouellet: I just want to jump in here and note that Dr. Gottlieb in an opinion piece published in the Wall Street Journal in August wrote,“confronting a dangerous pandemic requires containing spread wherever possible.”

Thanks, Rachel, for sharing your reporting.

Rachel Cramer: Thanks, Nicky.

Copyright 2020 Yellowstone Public Radio

Rachel is a UM grad working in the MTPR news department.
Nicky is MTPR's Flathead-area reporter.
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