A new survey released today by researchers at Montana State University and the University of Denver sheds light on how citizens in Montana and other western states view the response to and impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The results indicate that Montanans appear far more worried about friends or family contracting COVID-19 than about catching the disease themselves, that their concerns about economic hardship outweigh their fears of over-taxed local health care systems, and that they’re hungrier for information about the coronavirus from health experts than from political, business and religious leaders.

The survey was conducted in mid to late April and surveyed 2,220 individuals across Montana, North Dakota, Colorado and Utah. Of the 738 respondents in Montana, more than 70% said the pandemic had caused some or a lot of disruption in their lives, with 29% saying they had already experienced a loss in personal income due to the pandemic and 20% saying they’d been laid off or furloughed from work. About a third of respondents reported being moderately or very worried about the availability of critical health services or coronavirus testing, while nearly 75% expressed concern about the collapse of small businesses in Montana and a nationwide economic depression. David Parker, a political science professor at MSU and one of the survey researchers, said the immediate disruptions to income and jobs may go a long way in explaining the focus of those concerns. 

“People worry when they have something that’s directly affected them,” Parker said, “and the economics have affected them, where so far they haven’t had an effect of … getting sick with the coronavirus. Or they worry about friends and family getting sick, but at least here in Montana they probably don’t have many friends or family that did get sick.”

Despite the coronavirus’ relative containment in Montana, fear about family and friends contracting the disease was high, with 68% of respondents saying they were moderately or very worried about someone they know catching COVID-19, and nearly 64% saying they were worried about someone they know dying from the disease. Those numbers contrast sharply with respondents’ concern for their personal health. Only 38% said they were moderately or very worried about catching the disease, and 33% expressed concern that they would die if they did. Roughly two-thirds said they were somewhat or very prepared to deal with an infection if they or someone they know contracts COVID-19. 

That outward projection concern has perhaps been felt most strongly in rural areas such as Toole County, which experienced the state’s highest per capita infection rate this spring. The county has so far reported 29 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and six deaths in a population of roughly 4,800. Blair Tomsheck, a public health nurse and interim director of the Toole County Health Department, found the greater level of concern for others documented in the survey unsurprising, considering that once the virus touched down in Toole County, residents took the health risks seriously.

“We weren’t excluded from the virus,” Tomsheck said, “and people really took it to heart once it was here.”

What Tomsheck does find concerning is the low rate of information sharing indicated by the survey results. Only 37% of respondents said they sometimes or often share information with others about government guidance aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus. As an official who relies heavily on the public to help disseminate information from her office, Tomsheck said she’d hope to see those numbers rise. Tomsheck also finds the relatively low level of concern about a health care system collapse troubling.

“Here in Toole County, we have on average two intubation mechanisms and two nurses working on one single shift,” Tomsheck said. “So it’s not going to take much to exhaust the resources that we do have, and I’m wondering if people just don’t understand what our resources are.”

At the Gallatin City-County Health Department, Health Officer Matt Kelley said respondents’ focus on the economic repercussions of the pandemic makes sense. People are often more focused on what happens closest to them, he said, and the overwhelming demand on health care resources in places like New York state, which has recorded almost 19,000 COVID deaths,  may seem remote. Even so, Kelley said Montanans shouldn’t ignore how profoundly the coronavirus has impacted health care systems elsewhere.

“It’s still a dangerous virus and we still need to be careful about it,” Kelley said.

In an interview with Montana Free Press, Parker drilled deeper into the results related to coronavirus concern, running tabulations that revealed fewer than half of respondents across all age groups in Montana were worried about catching COVID-19. Concern about friends or family members catching the disease was in the mid-70% range among respondents under 40, and dropped to 64% among those aged 70 and older.

“I think younger people are more worried about their older parents, their older grandparents,” Parker said. “Older people, their friend groups might be very different or smaller, or maybe they’re thinking about their families and saying, ‘My family’s all younger than I am, they’re going to be fine.’ Or it could be a generational thing, ‘we’ve had tough times in our life, this is nothing.’”

For Parker, one of the survey’s biggest takeaways is that nearly 75% of Montanans surveyed said they consider coronavirus-related information from scientists to be very or extremely important. That figure dropped sharply for coronavirus information conveyed by politicians (40%), business leaders (29%), and religious leaders (22%). 

Furthermore, Parker noted, the results across all four surveyed states indicate that people largely approve of the steps governments have taken to combat the pandemic, suggesting that recent rallies protesting social distancing measures represent the views of a vocal minority. And, Parker added, support for government intervention to combat the crisis is higher than might be expected in states where many people tend to prefer a lighter institutional touch. That support cuts across party lines, with 67% of Republicans, 74% of independents and 87% of Democrats saying they support or strongly supported Montana’s stay-at-home directive. More than three-fourths of all respondents also said they support the billions in federal financial assistance extended to individuals and small businesses.

“I’m struck by this because I’m thinking of Montana in 1929 and 1930, and that was another moment where there was an economic catastrophe and Montanans said please help us and the federal government came in and did,” Parker said. “So I think of this as kind of a medical New Deal moment, as it were. And I think it’s going to have ripple effects in the fall elections.”

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...