Jim Tomlin, of Troy, was the first victim of the COVID-19 virus in Montana. He died in Kalispell on March 26, 2020. Credit: Photo courtesy of Tomlin family.

On March 13, 2020, then-Gov. Steve Bullock announced that Montana had its first “presumptively positive” cases of COVID-19, caused by the novel coronavirus that had been sweeping the globe, but until then hadn’t reached Montana. Bullock had declared a state of emergency a day earlier and Montanans were told to begin “social distancing” — a term we put in quotes at the time because it was still a new concept to many of us.

Two weeks later, Montana recorded its first COVID-19 fatality when 77-year-old Jim Tomlin, of Troy, succumbed to the virus just four days after falling ill.

Tomlin’s son, G. Scott Tomlin, went on Facebook to amplify the meaning of his father’s passing.

“Isolation and uncertainty are two of the worst symptoms we have right now, and it goes beyond those who have the disease,” Scott wrote. “This story was made worse for me because of isolation. To not be able to hold his hand in his last days.”

Since then, 2,127 more people have died in Montana from the disease, and nearly 150,000 people have been hospitalized in the state.

Late last month Montana hit a grim milestone when the state saw its 2,000th death from the disease, and on Wednesday we broke another record, with 510 people actively hospitalized for COVID-19. That number had come down a bit by Friday, due in part to the fact that since Wednesday another 20 COVID patients have died. As of this writing, the state reported 477 hospitalizations due to COVID-19.

That’s 477 families who, like Scott Tomlin, are having to stand by and watch from a distance as their loved ones suffer — and possibly die — in isolation.

Montana’s current COVID-19 surge doesn’t appear to be abating. The state continues to be among the highest-risk places in the nation for COVID-19 infection, with nearly 1,000 new cases per day.

Scott Tomlin said his dad was a lifelong educator and would want to keep educating people, even in death.

“He’d want people to know that you can help and that your actions matter,” Scott wrote.

We want to keep educating people, too.

This week reporter Alex Sakariassen set out to answer Montanans’ current questions about the pandemic and what they can do to help bring it to an end. From testing to masks to vaccine boosters to crisis standards of care, Alex’s deeply reported FAQ provides useful and actionable information from federal, state and local health experts.

Today, as in March 2020, COVID-19 continues to be a fast-evolving story, constantly generating new questions and new answers, and this FAQ will evolve with it. Send your questions to asakariassen@montanafreepress.org and we’ll do our best to track down accurate answers to add to this resource.

In other big news this week, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas announced the U.S.-Canada border will open in November to nonessential travel by vaccinated Canadians for the first time since March 2020. The border was closed to nonessential travel 573 days ago to try to slow the spread of COVID-19, and that closure has had a significant economic impact on communities that rely on Canadian tourism, and put a heavy strain on families and friends whose lives and relationships straddle the border. Officials from those communities are celebrating the re-opening.

“This border closure has cost our northern border communities dearly,” Eureka state Sen. Mike Cuffe said. “It’s cost us both financially and emotionally.”

Keep reading for more Montana Lowdown from the MTFP reporting team.

John S. Adams, Editor in Chief

Viewshed 🌄

A farmer holding a potato

“Building on Soil in Big Sandy,” Emily Stifler Wolfe’s deep dive into regenerative agriculture and soil health in Montana, is Part II of MTFP’s “Common Ground” series, published Thursday. Photo of Big Sandy farmer Bob Quinn by Jason Thompson.

Tweetstorm, Explained 🌩

Elected officials took to Twitter this week to cheer news of the November re-opening of the northern border to vaccinated Canadians. Gov. Greg Gianforte said the development was “long, long overdue” for “Montanans whose families, businesses, and communities have suffered for many months.”

The tweet drew commentary on vaccination mandates, the pandemic and border policy.

@CadillacPsycho lamented that “it accepts the premise that visitors must be vaccinated to keep the USA safe.” @ThoresonDenise echoed that view: “How is this a victory? It is still perpetuating vaccine mandates that are unconstitutional, unscientific and grossly discriminatory.” Others, like @shoop83, posited that Montana’s high rate of COVID infections and “our complete lack of any attempt to stop the spread” might scare some Canadians off.

Border policy writ large also entered the conversation, with @FragilDemocracy noting, “So you realize an open border is essential to business, but want to build a wall and close off the southern border?”

Amanda Eggert

The Viz 📈

One of the worst fire seasons in years blanketed much of Montana in smoke for weeks this summer. Here’s a look at the toll that smoke took on air quality over the last few months, using data for PM2.5 particulate compiled by the U.S. EPA’s Air Now monitoring program. For a full run-down on Montana’s 2021 fire season, see our new post-snow wrap-up.

Eric Dietrich

Verbatim 💬

“Their license is what is covering that … It’s not us sitting here saying, ‘well, we’re here, we’re advocates of the FDA.’ I’m trying to explain to you the law.”

— Ravalli County Board of Health member Katie Scholl, explaining at a public meeting Wednesday why the board will not advise medical providers and pharmacists to distribute ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19. Neither drug has been approved for emergency use by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Alex Sakariassen

On Our Radar 

Mara: Signs in front of fast-food restaurants advertising jobs paying $16 or $17 per hour indicate the U.S. worker shortage isn’t easing up any time soon. This Wall Street Journal piece puts a number to that trend: Roughly 4.3 million Americans are not currently participating in the job market. The “why not” is more nuanced, and more personal, than I imagined.

Eric: I’ve been digging into housing policy this week, and a source pointed me to this podcast where a couple of left-of-center journalists explore why it’s become uniquely difficult to build housing in America at a time when many places don’t have enough of it. Spoiler: The argument they make involves questioning some of the nation’s long-standing environmental review laws.

Amanda: This podcast episode by the New York Times’ The Daily explores the economics of childcare in America and Democrats’ multi-billion-dollar proposal to fix what’s been described as a “market failure.” It’s an interesting look at a tough issue that the pandemic has put a spotlight on.

Brad: The Billings Gazette’s story on U.S. District Court judge Susan Watters’ order blocking implementation of Senate Bill 266, which sought to penalize owners of Colstrip’s jointly operated coal-fired power plant for walking away from coal, tracks a developing issue with a noteworthy impact on energy dynamics in the state and region.

Alex: It’s a full-time job keeping tabs on the myriad impacts the pandemic continues to have on public education, and my story-idea wheels really got cranking this week after I caught this story from the news nonprofit The 74 about the squeeze that resource and labor shortages have put on school meal programs nationwide.

*Some linked stories may be behind paywalls.