Now is not the time to punish local governments for fighting COVID

Editor's Note
Luella N. Brien
Thursday, April 15, 2021
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Over the last year the COVID-19 epidemic has burned a hole through Big Horn County in a way that is difficult to describe, especially if you don’t live here.

Each week I’ve sat in front of my computer screen calculating mortality rates, infection rates, the difference between these rates among the age demographics, seven-day averages and other math formulas that I could never memorize despite repeating them no less than 365 times.

For those of us in the newsroom the difficulty was never about the math, it was about the people. Over the course of the last year, 69 people have died from coronavirus or complications related to the virus. In the grand scheme of the world 69 people doesn’t seem overwhelming, but every one of those families has been changed forever. Some of those families have lost loved ones time and again over the course of only a few weeks.

There are over 2,000 people who are suffering from the effects of the virus on their bodies, some, like myself, have long-term symptoms that have yet to fully subside.

The national standard of measuring the impact of COVID is by converting datasets into cases per 100,000 people. To put it in perspective, Wayne County, Michigan, home to the metro Detroit area, is considered hard hit by the virus. According to data from the Johns Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center, it is one of the top 25 counties in the country affected by the virus. The infection rate in Wayne County is 7,817 cases per 100,000 people. The virus fatality rate sits at 3.19 per 100,000.

According to John Hopkins, Big Horn County has an infection rate of 18,667 cases per 100,000 and has a virus fatality rate of 3 cases per 100,000.

Let that sink in for a minute.

We are right up there among the hardest hit counties in this country.

There are fewer than 13,400 people in the county, but since the epidemic kicked off last year at least one in five people in our community have been infected. We all know multiple people who have been sick, people who stayed home and quarantined following the strict orders, people masked up and made that quick trip out to get groceries, and people who really didn’t give a damn and went about their business.

We all know and we all saw how different neighborhoods and towns rallied together to take care of each other. I know I saw government entities work together in ways I never thought possible. COVID brought out something special in Big Horn County, but it took the deaths of 69 people to push to that point.

There were days when the grief was difficult I couldn’t get out of bed. I lost so many friends and relatives I had to stop keeping track. I couldn’t afford to hurt as much as I was hurting.

It may sound insensitive, but I couldn’t allow myself to be derailed for very long. As a journalist covering my own community it is tough to distance myself from a virus fatality rate of any kind, because I do have human emotions. Even though it is difficult, I try to let logic guide me.

Can we say the same for our lawmakers in Helena?

House Bill 632, Implementing the American Rescue Plan Act, sponsored by Republican Rep. Frank Garner, of Kalispell, authorizes the state to spend several billion dollars in COVID relief and stimulus money from federal ARPA funds.

It just passed the Senate Finance Committee and includes a section that asserts the state could penalize Big Horn County and similar counties, who make public health decisions based on data by and for their own communities.

Section 24 of the bill reads, “the amount of the grant is reduced by 20% if that local government or any of its authorized agents have issued health regulations related to COVID-19 that are more strict than those imposed by the state.”

Lawmakers in Helena are proposing decreasing funding to counties like ours for being more aggressive in mitigating the virus.

Considering counties with higher virus case numbers are more likely to have strict mask mandates, they are also more likely to have more Indigenous populations, higher poverty rates and less access to healthcare facilities. Do these counties need another hurdle to jump over? Can we afford to lose any more people? Can we afford the long-term effects of COVID? Can our hearts take any more grief?

It’s time for action; it’s time to call on Big Horn County Senator Jason Small. Let him know now is not the time for the state to punish local governments for fighting this virus. His number is (406) 690-0923, he can be emailed at