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Recap: Big Sky Town Hall, session 16

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Panelists talk COVID-19, mental health, surveillance testing and the new normal

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – The U.S. is breaking records as COVID-19 cases steadily rise and the holiday season looms around the corner.

On Monday Nov. 3, Explore Big Sky hosted a Town Hall featuring four panelists: Daniel Bierschwale, executive director of the Big Sky Resort Area District; Laura Sebulsky, director of admissions and clinical outreach with Charlie Health; Gary Rieschel, founding managing partner at Qiming Venture Partners; and Dr. Eric Lowe, emergency department physician for Bozeman Health and part of its COVID-19 Response Team. The 16th session of the town hall was once again virtual and moderated by EBS Publisher Eric Ladd and EBS Editor-in-Chief Joe O’Connor.

Lowe expressed concerns about the healthcare system he described as, “running a marathon for nine months … Now it’s getting bad nine or 10 months in and there is not an end in sight.”

The current spike in COVID-19 cases trumps the spikes from earlier in the year and, according to Lowe said Bozeman Health is dealing with its highest caseload to date. He added that Gallatin County has been consistently setting records with large amounts of community spread, and that the current strain on healthcare resources is only increasing with the steady climb in hospitalizations.

Asked to debunk any popular myths surrounding the coronavirus pandemic, Lowe warned everyone to be wary of the statement: “‘I don’t have COVID, I just have a cold.’ Watch out for that, there is no way to tell and be certain,” he said, adding that the amount of available information is in flux and everyone should be open to new data and listen to the experts. But he also expressed optimism for vaccines that have been tested and are expected to become available in the coming months.

“I worked a shift and came out of the shift and it felt like there were two new vaccines that had been approved with great numbers and all this news to catch up on,” he said.

Rieschel brought his business knowledge and prowess to the table to discuss COVID-19’s effects on the real estate market and small businesses. He expressed surprise that there are already three vaccines reporting 90-plus percent efficacy saying that by springtime, “you could have hundreds of millions of people who received the vaccine.”

In this unique situation, Rieschel pointed out how well governments and pharmaceutical companies have worked together, even fast-tracking regulations to do so. But he also pointed to the issues that have been revealed by COVID-19 in various systems such as education and the new telehealth industry.

He also noted substantial changes in the real estate market with massive property appreciation and a mass exodus of people from cities to rural areas like Montana. While some view the influx of residents as a negative, Rieschel offered a positive spin. “The good news is, because people came here in the midst of the pandemic… I think they have an appreciation that they want it to stay safe,” he said. “People appreciate where they are going and want it to be a safe place for them to stay … and I think you will see the behavior reflect that.”

In addition to the impacts of COVID-19 on healthcare resources and systems, the pandemic’s toll on the collective mental health of Montanans was addressed by Sebulsky.

Sebulsky works for Charlie Health, an organization offering video-based outpatient therapy and behavioral health services for teens, young adults and families. According to Sebulsky, in the large rural population of Montana, 93 percent of those don’t have access to behavioral healthcare.

She emphasized how the collective trauma of COVID-19 has exacerbated issues in young adults and seniors and that Charlie Health’s mission is to ensure that healthcare is in the hands of all Montanans.

Sebulsky’s mission at Charlie Health is to educate Montanans, to destigmatize mental healthcare and to change healthcare in the state. She is optimistic that things will change with the election of Greg Gianforte as the next governor of Montana, calling him a champion of rural healthcare.

Her advice for people in this difficult time was three-fold: to bring your central nervous system back to a baseline, get outside and stay active, and finally to consider a new hobby. Sebulsky also suggested that starting book clubs or other groups, playing games and checking in on loved ones can help stave off isolation.

In Big Sky, Bierschwale, the BSRAD board, large employers, private sector partners and Big Sky Relief partners have been working tirelessly to implement surveillance testing in the community, and his efforts are about to come to fruition.

“We really forged a unique partnership with all the Big Sky Relief partners and we really focused on three different components,” Bierschwale said. Those components included a response component, a recovery component, and a resiliency and preparedness component for the winter season.

The Big Sky Surveillance Testing Partnership will launch Dec. 7 and offer 1,000 tests at first to create a baseline of data in the community, Bierschwale said, then 450 tests per week after that. Testing will continue throughout the winter and focus on three key areas: identification of positives, isolation and quarantining with positive identification, and contact tracing, he added.

Bozeman Health will complement the asymptomatic testing offered by other partners with its own symptomatic testing at the Bozeman Health Big Sky Medical Center. As part of the partnership, a traveling lab will be stationed in Big Sky to supplement the capacity of the state and is estimated to turn around test results within 24 hours.

Bierschwale is also a part of Governor-elect Greg Gianforte’s new COVID-19 Task Force, which includes approximately 30 representatives from around the state. “I’m really excited…to dive in and see where I can help to provide some layer of support and bring the perspective of a resort community and tourism-based community to the table for the Task Force.” Bierschwale said.

Rieschel ended with advice for small business owners, namely, to believe in technology. He cited the popular platform Zoom and curbside delivery, explaining the reasons businesses are utilizing those technologies and that they aren’t going away.

“Invest in the technology and the fact that that’s probably the way things will stay, he said. “Things won’t go back to normal; there is no normal.”

The town hall ended on a more heartwarming note with panelists and interviewers expressing what it is they are grateful for ahead of Thanksgiving on Thursday.

Lowe recognized the broad range of efforts underway in Montana and in Gallatin County. “I’m grateful for the support of the whole community and all the sacrifices that everyone across the board has made to get our community to that finish line of those vaccines that we keep talking about.”

Sebulsky is, “I’m super thankful to be on this panel and also for the amount of support and positivity and encouragement that I’ve gotten from Montanans for changing what mental health platforms look like in Montana.”

Finally, Bierschwale rounded off gratefulness with an inspiring sentiment:

“Big Sky Resort has some of the biggest skiing in America, and I think this community has some of the biggest hearts,” he said. He praised the way southwest Montanans have banded together and called for extra kindness and patience.

“Let’s not forget to support each other,” he said. “We are all human beings, and we all live in a wonderful place that we to call home here in Montana … Let’s make sure that we continue to do that graciously together as we go into this winter season.”

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