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Bullock redirects $200M in relief funds

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Bullock answers a call-in question during his Oct. 7 press conference to announce his redirection of funds and address the recent spike in active COVID-19 cases in Montana. PHOTO BY MNAP Livestream

Governor enacts daily ‘snapshot’ of hospital metrics while calling on local governments to do their part

By Gabrielle Gasser

HELENA – Gov. Steve Bullock held a virtual press conference on Oct. 7 to announce his reallocation of $200 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds, and to address the recent spike in COVID-19 cases across Montana.

The redirection of funds, Bullock said, would bolster the balance of Montana’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund, doubling the balance to a total of $400 million.

While Montana has a strong UI Trust Fund, over the past eight months UI claims have depleted the balance from $365 million in March to $202 million in September. Since the start of the pandemic, more than 100,000 Montana workers have received unemployment benefits from the state UI Trust Fund, which is supported by a tax collected from Montana businesses based on a multifaceted rate schedule.  

This infusion of funds to the trust will prevent over 43,000 Montana businesses from being hit by an 85 percent rate increase in the tax, Bullock said, and in doing so, will save these businesses millions of dollars over the next few years. 

“Montana businesses have already been hit hard once due to COVID-19 and its economic impacts,” he said. “The last thing we want is to see them hit hard twice by significantly increasing unemployment insurance rates.”

The governor also committed $4 million in Coronavirus Relief Funds to be distributed to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry to ensure that it can continue paying benefits to those in need.

Regarding the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in Montana, Bullock’s message remained consistent. “We need to do the things we know need to be done,” he said.

In the past two weeks, the number of positive coronavirus cases reported in Montana has doubled, according to Bullock. Of the cases reported, 31 percent were from two counties, Yellowstone and Flathead. The State Health Department confirmed communitywide transmission in most Montana counties, an especially problematic concern in correctional facilities and nursing homes. The death toll in the state has risen to 193 as of EBS press time on Oct. 7.

Bullock said he hopes the spike serves as a wake-up call to Montanans, and that we all need to do our part to follow the measures already in place and avoid overloading an already strained healthcare system.

In an effort to keep the state informed and promote vigilance, Bullock announced that starting on Oct. 8 his office will send out daily updates or “snapshots” of COVID-19 hospital capacity in the state.

According to Bullock, the updates will include “… a statewide snapshot of beds, ICU and ventilator capacity, including a regional breakdown of inpatient beds occupied. It will also include info specific to hospitals across our state.”

Jim Murphy, chief of Montana’s Communicable Disease Control and Prevention Bureau, followed Bullock’s address with the prediction that we will see a statewide increase in hospitalizations in the coming weeks as well as an increase in deaths caused by the coronavirus.  To date, Murphy said, Montana has recorded 235 hospitalizations due to COVID-19.

Dr. Greg Holtzman, the state medical officer, concurred with Bullock in his concern that hospitals will reach capacity and be unable to accept new patients. Holtzman stressed that even amid a global pandemic it’s imperative that patients seek the care they need and keep chronic medical conditions under control. He urged the public to be in contact with their healthcare providers and said that delays in medical care are unacceptable.

During the open question portion of the press conference, Bullock emphasized the need for local governments to take action to curb the spread of the virus in their communities. He noted that he has put in place directives that apply to the whole state and work if people follow them. Bullock promoted a more “surgical approach” to containing the outbreak, repeatedly asserting that local government needs to step up and take action.

When questioned about the potential political nature of his management methods so close to the Nov. 3 election, Bullock denied political motives and called for a depoliticization of following basic precautionary measures.

“Unfortunately, it’s … in part because of politics that we’re seeing increasing numbers. Because taking basic simple precautions has been politicized. And in order for us to make real meaningful progress along the way, it needs to be depoliticized by folks on the ground and in their communities,” Bullock said.

The governor offered one final plea to his constituents during the press conference.

“I encourage Montanans to take the steps we already know will change these numbers in our communities,” he said. “It is to avoid large gatherings, it is to wear a mask, it is to disinfect or wash our hands frequently, and it is to social distance.”

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