Montana Free Press asked reporters in communities around the state to file stories about how their towns are responding to the emerging presence of coronavirus. The news organization is publishing them as they come in. News is changing fast during this ongoing story. These reports are necessarily snapshots in time. They may become outdated quickly. This piece was reported over the weekend of March 14-15, and published Monday, March 16.
BILLINGS — In October, after Cass Sullivan’s father, Pat Sullivan, was diagnosed with dementia, he was moved from assisted living to the memory-care unit of Highgate Senior Living in Billings.
Sullivan had been visiting her 76-year-old father three days a week, usually over the lunch hour, until last Wednesday, when Highgate, reacting to concerns about the spread of COVID-19, banned visitors to the facility.
The next day, Sullivan said, “I just suddenly realized, ‘Geez, my dad’s on the first floor.’” So, she got in her car and headed his way, calling to tell him she’d be there in 10 minutes.
“I said, ‘Stay in your bedroom and I’ll come along and see if I can get to your window.’ So that’s all we did was wave to each other and smile back and forth. But it cheered him up considerably.”
Later that day, Sullivan posted a picture of her father on Facebook, showing him smiling wanly behind a screened window in his room at Highgate.
"I figured maybe there were other people who hadn’t thought of this,” Sullivan said. “That’s kind of why I posted it.”
It’s been hard on both of them, Sullivan said, but she feels sorrier for the people whose loved ones are unable to comprehend the scope of the crisis playing out beyond the walls of their residence.
“My dad’s one of the lucky ones who still, for the most part, knows how to use his phone,” she said. “There are many people in there that don’t.”
Brook Hovland expressed similar sentiments in regard to his situation, that of a live-event producer looking at weeks or months of cancellations.
“We’re OK, personally, our company,” Hovland said. “We’re taking a big, big financial hit. But you look around and I see stagehands, I see cleaning people, I see a lot of people that are living paycheck to paycheck, and they’re out of work for at least the next several weeks. Those are the people that are going to be really impacted.”
Hovland, the owner of DiA Events, said the cancellations started coming in almost two weeks ago, when companies with a national presence decided to halt all travel for their employees. Then, over just two days at the end of last week, he had 18 more cancellations, including the NAIA 32-team women’s collegiate basketball championship, which was supposed to be played in Billings March 18-24. Hovland was going to provide all the audio and video services for that tourney, not to mention the confetti cannons.
“I’m not getting all wound up over everything,” Hovland said. “I just know a lot of this will be rescheduled for the fall. We’re taking advantage of the time to do maintenance on equipment and get ready for when the industry starts breathing again.”
But his thoughts turned once more to all the support personnel at live events, the security people, the ushers, the ticket-takers.
“There’s a lot of money that has been lost by a lot of companies, but the biggest concern is the individuals that are going to be out on the street if they can’t afford their rent, or what have you,” Hovland said. “That’s the scariest thing to me.”
For health-care workers and first responders in Yellowstone County, local authorities have taken steps to provide them with childcare assistance. Billings Clinic, the largest health care organization in the state, announced Sunday that in the wake of Gov. Steve Bullock’s decision to close schools for two weeks, it will be providing free childcare for essential health care workers.
The care will be provided at the Billings Public Library, which has halted regular services, for the children of first responders and essential workers from Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare, and RiverStone Health, the county’s public health agency.
Barbara Schneeman, the public information officer for the Unified Health Command, made up of Billings Clinic, St. Vincent, RiverStone, and Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services, said the team is working on providing additional childcare services, given the size of the health care industry in Billings.
At a recent Business Healthcare Summit in Billings, Big Sky Economic Development noted that the city has 14,000 health care workers, accounting for 17 percent of the local workforce. Additionally, 40 percent of hospital inpatients in Billings come from outside Yellowstone County, and the estimated population of the Billings “Hospital Referral Region” is 620,000.
Partly because of that large presence, the Unified Health Command has been in place for many years and has already dealt with numerous public-health emergencies, Schneeman said, including the anthrax scare after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Ebola outbreak, flu-vaccine shortages, and the H1N1 flu virus of 2009.
“This group has been working together for a number of years, planning and revising plans and exercising and actually doing the work when our community has faced health care crises,” she said. But with COVID-19, she acknowledged, “it has risen to a whole other level of activity.”
“We continue to work pretty much around the clock,” she said. “It is challenging, it really is. This is an unprecedented time for all of us across the country.”
Other important steps taken so far include setting up COVID-19 testing sites, which opened Monday, at both city hospitals, with plans to use them until the county is ready to open a centralized community-testing site at the MetraPark complex. Health information phone lines have also been set up at Billings Clinic (255-8400), St. Vincent (237-8775), and RiverStone (651-6415).
The most challenging aspect of the COVID-19 response, Schneeman said, is that the situation has been changing so rapidly.
“It’s such a dynamic situation,” she said. “I huddle with my team every morning at 8:30, and we go over the work plan for literally four hours.” They decide what messages are important to communicate that day, then work on steps that can be taken to support that message.
“I’m going to say a lot of times things change by noon,” Schneeman continued. “It’s a global-wide public health emergency, and we learn more every hour, almost.”
Accurate, serious-minded communication has never seemed so important to Jason Harris, radio host of the popular “Big J Show,” which is normally geared toward generating laughs and maintaining an air of boisterous irreverence.
“People are so hungry for information and need to know what’s going on, so we’ve kept it pretty solid when we’re talking about this,” Harris said.
There’s still entertainment to be had making fun of toilet-paper hoarders and conspiracy theorists, he said, but with so much misinformation circulating, “I feel like it’s kind of our job with a louder megaphone to say, ‘Nope, let’s just stick to the facts and operate on those.’”
The hunger for information is evidenced by the show’s Facebook traffic. The show has always had an active social media following, Harris said, but in the past week, interactions were up more than 300 percent, and post reaches were up more than 200 percent.
After more than 15 years on the radio, Harris said, he’s never seen anything like it. Normally, he said, there might be a local story that captures everyone’s attention for a day or two, or a big national story that is “kind of relevant but not super close to home.”
“This one,” he said, “is national and it’s local and it’s just every single day.”
Gary Buchanan, of Buchanan Capital Inc., has been in the financial-services industry for 42 years, and said the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks was the only situation that came close to what’s happening now. Most startling was the plunge from record highs on Wall Street to a bear market.
“I’ve never seen anything this fast,” he said. “That’s what’s different. None of us saw this coming.”
Still, he said, there are glimmers of good news. Many of his clients have been with him for years, he said, and they have been schooled on the need to be calm and ride out the lows.
“They’ve been through enough markets to be steady,” he said, “but I think the panic on the health front is a whole new consideration.”
Buchanan applauded the efforts of state and local authorities to get out in front of the crisis, and he echoed the comments of others in saying that Montana has been fortunate that there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 here until the state had a chance to learn from what has happened elsewhere in the country and around the world.
“We’ve been lucky to have a little more time to think this thing through,” Buchanan said.