Last week, Governor Greg Gianforte released his proposed budget for state government for the 2023 biennium.

The plan would fulfill many of the policy priorities he outlined in his “Montana Comeback Plan” with the priorities of getting the economy going again, safely opening businesses, and getting Montanans back to work.

The budget provides $50 million in broad-based and targeted tax relief, including cutting the top marginal income tax rate to 6.75%. In 2019, Montanans who earned a taxable income of more than $18,400 paid the top marginal rate of 6.9%.

“This roadmap to the Montana comeback will help unlock our state’s full, outstanding potential,” Gianforte said.

He highlighted efforts to control state spending, saying, “I promised we would hold the line on new general fund spending. This budget does. After a decade of out-of-control spending, this budget brings fiscal responsibility back to state government while providing essential services.”

The governor’s budget also relieves 4,000 small businesses from the burden of the business equipment tax by raising the exemption from $100,000 to $200,000. The business equipment tax is a unique Montana tax that requires businesses to pay taxes on equipment, supplies and tools used in the production and operation of the business.

Gianforte’s budget boosts funding by 25 percent for programs providing property tax relief to low-income homeowners, including disabled veterans and seniors.

To combat the drug epidemic, the Gianforte budget devotes marijuana tax revenue and part of the tobacco tax settlement to the HEART Fund, or the Healing and Ending Addiction through Recovery and Treatment Fund. It will fund a full continuum of substance abuse prevention and treatment programs for communities. With $7 million in new fund and a federal match, the governor’s budget invests an additional $23.5 million per year in substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.

The governor proposes a $1 million investment in trades education by providing a credit for employee education and training.

Gianforte’s budget also provides $2.5 million of incentives to raise the pay of Montana’s starting teachers. Montana ranks last in the country in starting teacher pay.

Gianforte noted that, even with statutory required spending and investments in combating the drug epidemic, increasing starting teacher pay, and expanding trades education, total general fund spending increases less than one percent per year.

By Johnny Kampis, The Center Square

President-elect Joe Biden’s broadband plan indicates he will push for more government-owned (taxpayer-funded) internet networks, which would be bad news for taxpayers.

[The issue will be taken up by the Montana State Legislature.]

Biden’s agenda, released on his website during his presidential campaign, talks in detail about his broadband goals. That includes expanding broadband to every American, which could include wireless broadband through the deployment of 5G.

The most alarming part of the plan: Biden says he will task the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) “to support cities and towns that want to build municipally-owned broadband networks.” This means that taxpayers will be on the hook for these systems.

A Democratic task force put together by Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants to empower the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to largely undo much of what was accomplished by Chairman Ajit Pai under the Trump administration, including reversing the agency’s stance on government broadband.

“Democrats will take action to prevent states from blocking municipalities and rural co-ops from building publicly-owned broadband networks, and increase federal support for municipal broadband,” the recommendations released by that task force this summer state.

But the list of such projects that were tried and failed are quite long. The Taxpayers Protection Alliance highlighted many of them in its May report “GON with the Wind: The Failed Promise of Government Owned Networks Across America.” More follies are noted on TPA’s “Broadband Boondoggles.”

Jeffrey Westling, a fellow in innovation and technology policy at R Street Institute, told TPA that government can help usher in infrastructure growth in other ways, such as loosening regulations and offering incentives to private providers to aid expansion to high-cost areas such as rural America. That’s a better plan than promoting municipal broadband, he said.

“There’s a better way of doing this that doesn’t put taxpayers at risk,” Westling said.

U.S. Telecom: The Broadband Association agrees with Westling. In its agenda for the next administration’s first 100 days, the organization lays out its wish list for the goal of connecting every American with broadband.

This includes addressing “antiquated policies” that harm broadband deployment and discourage competition. U.S. Telecom said the administration can work to eliminate high pole attachment rates, help expedite permitting processes and lift mandates that companies must sustain outdated networks rather than devote more resources to deploying the next generation of networks.

U.S. Telecom also said Congress should fund the Broadband Data Act so the FCC can create better broadband maps to ensure taxpayer resources are better targeted toward unserved and underserved areas. The group also rejects any proposal that would treat broadband as a government utility and the potential red tape that could ensue.

“All policies should be viewed with an eye toward removing barriers that impede getting broadband to everyone,” the U.S. Telecom agenda states.

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Editor’s Note: Will government controlled broadband be less prone to censorship and communication  barriers than is the current monoply status that government has granted to the big tech companies in the US?

Believe it or not, the federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on Dec. 29 announced that it was going to impose new fees on distilleries and other facilities that rushed to the rescue of a COVID –stricken nation by producing hand sanitizers. The FDA backed off the proposed tax only when the Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) told them to.

HHS explained that only the FDA has the authority to issue such rules. While HHS administration said that the industry should be thanked rather than taxed, it chastised FDA primarily for having failed to go through the proper regulatory processes. The incident is a reminder about the true nature of government and regulatory controls.

Brian Harrison, HHS Chief of Staff, issued a statement that they have withdrawn the Notice published in the Federal Register,  OTC Monograph Drug Facility Fees and directed FDA to cease enforcement of these fees. 

Early in the COVID-19 crisis many small businesses across the country joined the fight to combat the virus which included distilleries that augmented their operations to produce hand sanitizer, an important asset in the battle to deter the spread of COVID.

In March, the FDA issued a guidance document – the Temporary Policy for Preparation of Certain Alcohol-Based Hand Sanitizer Products During the Public Health Emergency (COVID-19) – which provides flexibility for those entities capable of producing hand sanitizer to rapidly enter the market.

By Nicole Rolf and Rachel Cone

The 67th Montana Legislature convened Jan. 4 in Helena. For those who follow the process from home, this year’s mixed-format session, or “hybrid”, will offer an opportunity for remote and virtual participation in the lawmaking process.

In addition to giving legislators the choice between participating in person or from a remote location, the option to testify through electronic means opens the doors for farmers and ranchers from remote corners of our state to participate, regardless of winter feeding, calving or inclement weather. In this, our first weekly Boots on the Hill column, we’ll outline how you can participate.

For Montana Farm Bureau lobbyists working in Helena, this session comes with many changes. COVID-19-related precautions mean each committee will meet a little differently than usual, but they have put protocols in place to carry out the important work of the people and still allow public input. Depending on the size of the room in which the committee meets, they may allow a limited number of non-committee members into the room to testify and watch from the audience. In smaller meeting rooms, members of the public are allowed inside to testify and then exit the room because limited space does not allow seating. Committees are also hearing testimony virtually. 

Much of the legislative process remains the same, especially for folks who do not usually spend time in Helena. Anyone can visit the Legislative webpage, leg.mt.gov/, to find a listing of your elected officials, to view all the bills that have been introduced and to track where the bills are in the legislative process. What’s unique this year is the button in the middle of the website’s home page: “Request to testify remotely/testify remotely.” Though this portal, you can locate the bill you are interested in following and submit written testimony or schedule a virtual testimony. These must be scheduled 24 hours in advance. You can also call the Legislative Hotline to leave messages for legislators at (406) 444-4800.

While it is important to have a relationship with your own legislators, they may not be on the committee that most pertains to issues you care about. You may wish to familiarize yourself with legislators who serve on relevant committees including but not limited to: agriculture, natural resources, fish and wildlife and taxation. 

We have started tracking bills and testifying on behalf of our farming and ranching members. Each week for the next 90 days, you can look for our update on bills we’re working, as directed by the Farm Bureau member-written policy we represent.

Here’s the first bill we’re supporting this Session:

Senate Bill 65: Revise civil liability laws, introduced by Sen. Steve Fitzpatrick (R), SD10. Farm Bureau member policy supports. This bill limits liability to the owners of a premise if a person comes there and is infected with COVID-19, as long as that owner was not negligent. This bill is primarily intended to protect business owners, which would of course include farms and ranches.

Nicole Rolf is the Director of National Affairs and a rancher from Miles City, Montana.  Nicole works closely with our Congressional delegation on national issues affecting Montana agriculture. Additionally, this is her seventh Montana Legislative Session, lobbying in Helena on behalf of MFBF members. She also works as the Eastern Montana Regional Manager. Nicole can be contacted at nicoler@mfbf.org.

Rachel Cone is the Director of State Affairs for Montana Farm Bureau Federation. She also coordinates the MFBF Water Committee, the Resource Management, Environment and Technology Committee and the Livestock Committee in addition to being the Treasurer for the Farm Bureau PAC. Rachel can be contacted at rachelc@mfbf.org.

Montana businesses no longer have to operate within constrained hours and reduced capacity because of COVID-19, by order of Governor Greg Gianforte on Wednesday. The order eliminates the restraints imposed mid-November by former Government Steve Bullock. Gianforte said the order becomes effective within 48 hours of Tuesday afternoon, and it follows the rescinding, last week, of local mandates by Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton.

The loosening of restrictions is being made possible by the arrival of vaccines and the decline in the number of new COVID cases in the state.

Gov. Bullock’s orders had required restaurants, bars, casinos, distilleries, etc. to operate at 50 percent capacity and to close at 10 pm. Felton had extended the limit in Yellowstone County on hours of business to all businesses, but with both state and local orders rescinded businesses in Yellowstone County may now operate at full capacity and at whatever hours they choose.

Gianforte said that previous mandates “unduly restricted” restaurants, bars and casinos. Capacity directives were arbitrary, he said, and the restrictions were complicated and confusing. He said that he heard “loud and clear” from business owners that the directives were “too complex, difficult to implement and arbitrary.”

He said that his goal in issuing the COVID directives was to reduce the burden on businesses while simultaneously reducing risks of spreading the virus. The new rules are simple and common sense, he said. They are outlined on three pages while the previous rules were 25 pages long.

 Businesses are to follow “best practices” and urged to develop policies that continue to ensure the health and safety of their customers and employees.

“We will continue to make common sense steps,” said Gianforte, saying that he encourages everyone to continue to wear masks and that he  is “looking forward to the day when we can remove them.”

Last week, Gianforte said that changes to mask mandates not would be made until vaccinations have been given to the most vulnerable in the state, and a bill is on his desk from the state legislature that provides protection from COVID-19 lawsuits for businesses, schools and non-profits. That bill is winding its way through the state legislature.

At that time, he also explained that the first people to get the vaccine were to be health care providers and those most vulnerable, in an effort to keep hospitals and deaths at a minimum. At that time he identified two categories of priority vaccine recipients. In the press conference on Wednesday he said most of those in the first category – 1A – have already received the vaccine and most of those in the second category – 1B – should have received vaccinations by the end of January.

Montana is ranked ninth in terms of how quickly and efficiently the vaccines are being delivered and administered. “We have over 70,000 first doses,” he said, which is in excess of the number needed to serve the first category. By next week, most communities will move into the treating those in the 1B category.

New deliveries of the vaccines are being made weekly.

If you’d like to let your legislator know what you think you can offer testimony virtually. Legislative Services created a platform to submit testimony and receive a Zoom link. All you have to do is navigate to leg.mt.gov and click on the “HAVE YOUR SAY MONTANA” speech bubble icon. Follow the directions provided and make sure you submit everything by noon the day prior to the hearing.  When you log onto the Zoom meeting, your camera and audio will be turned off. Once the chair calls for proponent and opponent testimony, you can click the “Raise Hand” button and wait for staff to turn your audio on. At which point you can give your testimony. Be sure to stick around in case members of the committee have questions for you.

Yellowstone County and the City of Billings are exploring in earnest the possibility of consolidating local government offices in the Stillwater Building.

On Monday, County Commissioners asked County Finance Director Kevan Bryan to research the feasibility of the county purchasing a portion of the Stillwater Building, and to present commissioners a report on January 22. His research should also include other options that might serve the county’s future growth and space needs

Kevin Iffland, Assistant City Administrator, who heads a committee to do much the same for the city, said they remain interested in a proposal they received about a year and a half ago from WC Commercial the company that owns the Stillwater Building. The Stillwater Building is a five-story building at 316 N. 26th in downtown Billings, formerly known as the James F. Battin Building. Several departments of county government currently occupy part of the third floor under a lease with the company that owns the building WC Commercial headed by Joe Holden.

A few weeks ago, Holden sent a letter to the city and the county saying he wanted to sell the property and asking for $24 million.

The county and city will initiate the process of getting appraisals on the building. Iffland said that he is sending WC Commercial a letter this week announcing their interest and asking permission to conduct appraisals, which would probably not be completed until near the end of February at the earliest.

Commissioner John Ostlund initiated a conversation about the need to develop a plan for their future needs with other commissioners and department heads during a discussion meeting. He underscored the wisdom of making plans now for the future of what they know will eventually be a need for more space. Both the county attorney’s office and courts are working in crowded spaces, said Ostlund, and both will need more space as “felony cases have went off the charts. “We know at some point we will be booted out of the court house.”  Eventually, he said, he believes that the Courthouse will be a building dedicated to courts and the justice system.

Ostlund said that he thought that the county would be interested in no more than two floors and would probably want to “condo” them, but whether that is the case will be part of the feasibility study. He said that they will also be looking at the possibility of purchasing the Miller Building which is available for sale. It is where City/County Planning offices are housed and includes parking.

Iffland said that the city, too, is looking at other options but they aren’t “super looking”, just wanting to be aware of their options.

Ostlund said that the county plans to acquire whatever they need without having to ask for any tax increases. He said that the county had already set aside some capital funds for remodeling existing space or acquiring new that has not been used, and there are other capital reserves that can be pulled together which will most likely meet their financial needs.

The city would want the rest of the building that the county does not take, including basement and main floor and upper two floors. “We are in dire need of law  and justice center space, and secondly, other city offices. Planning and community development and public works are in leased buildings and we would like to consolidate.

While there are sure to be benefits and cost savings for the city and county to do the purchase jointly, the real beneficiaries, said Iffland, will be the citizens in having all local government offices located in one area.

County Water District of the Billings Heights

I was appointed by the Yellowstone County Commissioners to serve on the Billings Heights Water District and attended my first monthly meeting in September 2020. Members of the public have a right to participate too.  The basis for access to public participation in Montana is the Montana Constitution Article II, Section 8 Right to Participate. State Law MCA 7-13.22.32 which states that the purpose of this board is to oversee the management of the County Water District of Billings Heights. As required by the MT constitution, statutes and case law, the Heights Water Board is required to follow MT Open Meeting law. 

Open Meeting law establishes that agendas and supporting material on which the board may make a decision be available to the public 48 hours in advance of the meeting. A single page of the 12 page agenda is available on the website.

MCA 2-3-203. States “All meetings of public or governmental bodies, boards, bureaus, commissions, agencies of the state, … supported in whole or in part by public funds or expending public funds, … must be open to the public”.  On Wednesday, December 9th, Wynn Pippin who is President of the County Water Board sent an email stating …” we state on our web page that due to the pandemic unless it is for business a person cannot be at the meeting.”  The explanation provided verbally at the meeting was that the public could provide comments in writing that would be read and included with the minutes.  The absurdity of making public comments about items when there is no information defies credulity.  Three members of the water district came to observe the meeting; Duke Nieskens, the director, locked the front door and refused them entrance.

In the November meeting, staff were given Christmas bonuses of $100 each and health insurance rates were confirmed.  At the December meeting, staff were given the refund from the Worker’s Compensation fund to share.  The assistant director passed out 2 pages of salary information, the Board President made a motion to increase salaries for all staff 2.5% which was not seconded.  Roger Ostermiller made a motion to give all staff a 4% raise which was seconded and approved by 5 of the 7 board members.  The salaries for staff were made without consideration for the total increases given for health insurance, bonuses and increase, without preparing an annual budget and explaining to the governing body the impact.  The board had no information at the meeting about cost of living, what the salaries would be for each staff member with the increase, what the total impact would be for the budget.  The comment made was, “our staff are not union” and it does not matter how our increases compare to other employees in Yellowstone County because we have a lean work force.   For reference, social security recipients will see an increase of 1.3% in 2021. 

The Heights Water Board of Billings Heights meets on the second Wednesday of each month, 1540 Popelka Dr, Billings, MT 59105,6:00 pm at their office.  With the exception of myself, no board or staff member wears a mask; the board sits shoulder to shoulder at a table. 

The board is elected by state law.   Three positions are open February 1, 2021. Filing opened up for three seats on December 10th and closes on February 8th. If more than 3 people file, an election will be held on May 4th. Board members are paid $150 per meeting if they attend; $100 if they do not attend.  These are the rules:https:// sosmt.gov/… /2021- Special- Purpose- District… You may download a Declaration for Nomination and Oath of Candidacy here: https://www.co.yellowstone.mt.gov/elections/information/DeclarationForNomination.pdf

If you have questions, you may want to email the Board of Directors CWDBHBoard@ gmail.com or myself pamellis50  @gmail.com   I would be happy to speak with you.

Pam Ellis

2000 Outlook Drive

Billings, MT

By Evelyn Pyburn

After making a number of changes to Project Recode, the Billings City Council passed the new zoning regulations in First Reading by a wide margin last Monday. On December 21, the City Council will take up Project Recode in Second Reading at which time more changes are possible.

A proposed amendment to a regulation that is perceived as especially onerous by casino owners failed to be passed. The amendment would have reduced from 350 –feet to 150 –feet as the distance that  casinos must be located from the nearest residence. The new regulation immediately puts almost all 134 casino and bar owners in Billings out of compliance. Also left in place are regulations that will, over time, consolidate casinos into one or two areas in the city. Non-complying businesses are “grandfathered in” until they have to rebuild or remodel for some reason.

Questions about whether the city could “target” casinos in such a manner and whether it was legal was generally dismissed by city planners who pointed out that other cities have implemented similar regulations. City Council members who voted against the amendment said that regulations are being changed because they have been hearing for years from people who want them changed, because they don’t like living so close to casinos, and said council members, during the past weeks they had heard from only a few casino owners who objected.

Said City Councilwoman, Penny Ronning, the presence of casinos is “one of the major issues I have heard about more frequently than most other issues… the frustration that people have with casinos being close to their neighborhood.” Incidents of crime was pointed out by council member Denise Joy as a concern.

With one casino owner pointing out that bars and taverns have a much higher incident of crime associated with them than do casinos, (and that crime around convenience stores is four times higher) he wondered why the distance requirement for bars and casinos is only 150 feet. Mayor Bill Cole expressed his concerns that there is a difference between the two types of businesses, saying he prefers to see consistency in the codes.

The objections are about the risk to casino owners who could lose their business and property values should something happen in which they would have to rebuild and would be denied the ability to do so by city government. The risks also exist for other kinds of non-conforming businesses,

“This simply isn’t fair and is being pursued by a relatively small group,” said casino owner Dennis Benson, “There are thousands of people who go into the casinos.” The regulation, said Benson is not “healthy for the community” …. ”people who go into the casinos are being pushed into the underbelly of the community.”

“I don’t see it as an incredible hardship,” said City Council member, Danny Choriki, calling the objections “fear mongering.” Choriki was later chastised by one casino owner, Josh Benson, for jokingly calling gamblers “sinners.”

Other amendments to Recodes, which fared much better, addressed other issues such as requirements that would have forced new infill building or remodeling, to adhere to the current style of a neighborhood. Builders had said in earlier comments that the requirement could increase costs.

Another successful amendment extended from six months to 12 months a limitation on how much time businesses of non-conforming uses would have to sell or otherwise resume business, at their location, should they temporarily cease operation for some reason. To exceed that time frame would terminate the legality of the non-conforming use.

City Council members Pam Purinton and Frank Ewalt wanted to delay the decision on Project Recode until January 11, but the motion failed. They pointed out that there are a number of issues that have been brought forward that are still unaddressed, most especially the concern from builders that the new codes escalate the cost of building and will adversely impact affordable housing. There are also unaddressed requests for a legal review of the codes.

During the next city council meeting on December 21, the adoption of Project Recode will be considered again in Second Reading, with the possibility of additional amendments.

In earlier emails, builders pointed out many aspects of the codes that they believe will raise costs. For example the requirement to have a back road access to a multi-family development immediately doubles the cost.

Restrictions on building heights eliminate opportunities to gain the most value from available space.

There were questions and confusion about restrictions on the amount of frontage required for residential lots versus multi-family lots and about required sizes of garage doors. “Can you confirm if there will be a maximum garage square footage size, other than the max of 50% total garage door width on the front façade?” asked Brendon Hill of Diverse Construction.

“The 50% limitation in the proposed code applies only to the garage door opening on the front façade of the house. So if your house is 60 feet wide, 30 feet of garage door opening is allowed along the front façade,” replied Nicole Cromwell, Planning Department staff member who oversaw the three and a half-year effort writing the new codes. Cromwell explained on Monday night that she believes the garage door restrictions is a safety measure which will allow the home owner to better see if they accidently left their garage door open or to see the plight of a pedestrian who might fall in front of their house and need assistance.

Bill Hanser, a residential builder, pointed out that one regulation requires side or alley facing driveways, which “adds cost and reduces the available yard space…. adds expense and increase(s) the amount of snow removal for the homeowner.

If safety is the issue, said Pam Purinton, how can a home owner see a garage door off the alley?

Landscaping requirements are also a concern. A landscaping plan is required to be submitted with the building permit and that plan will be binding on successors. This seems to add a significant, hard- to- enforce burden, as well as additional cost to the housing market, said Hanser. Also, many homeowners choose to build sweat equity by doing their own landscaping, allowing them to purchase a property they otherwise would not be able to afford.

Purinton expressed surprise and concern to learn that under Recode the newly built Shiloh Commons would not have been allowed.

Developer of Shiloh Commons, Mike Stock, pointed out in an email that his company, Stock Development, has developed over a hundred million dollars in residential, commercial and multi-family real-estate in Billings over the last several years. “During the project re-code we were never given the opportunity to comment on any of the changes that have been made. Just reviewing the 400+ page document the parking for residential/multi-family has increased over 25%. This is astronomical in development worlds and will have a substantial increase in development costs! As it stands today we will no longer be able to consider Affordable housing or for that matter Housing in general. Costs due to this type of increase could be as much as 2 Million on a 200 unit complex. Stock Development is very energy conscious and all the work we put into making our buildings ENERGY EFFICIENT will be canceled out by the increase parking! 99% of all municipalities across the country are reducing parking codes not increasing them.”

Builders have said that the restrictions make using new kinds of materials and concepts impossible, and push them into building higher priced homes, for which there is a market which they can readily address, but leaves middle class buyers out of the market.

Recode advocates have repeatedly said they want “quality over quantity.”

 “Anytime you say quality, you are raising the price,” said one builder.

By Evelyn Pyburn

The number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Montana has been declining since November 11, especially over the past two weeks while testing numbers have remained steady. But for closed and partially closed businesses there seems to be no winning, the decline in case numbers, just like the increase, has resulted in the extension of restrictions on business.

Last week, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock attributed the decline in case numbers to restrictions that went into place Nov. 20, which expanded the existing mask mandate to the entire state and required bars and casinos to close by 10 p.m. – a mandate that county health officer, John Felton then extended to all businesses through December, and which now, last Thursday, he extended again through January 31.

Confirmed cases of COVID are down 36% since Nov. 20, said the Governor, advocating that the restraints are working and should continue.

The state’s COVID website shows that daily confirmed cases peaked about Nov. 11 and averaged 1103 daily confirmed cases throughout the rest of the month. The average number of daily cases identified for the first 12 days of December has been 849.

While the number of hospitalized individuals remains relatively high — with 488 individuals reportedly hospitalized with the virus on Thursday (dropping to 365 by Sunday) — Bullock said he expected the number to drop after local data is reconciled with the state’s reporting system. The number of deaths reported statewide as of Sunday was 818 with 3,080 total hospitalizations.

The World Health Organization said in March that the fatality rate of COVID-19 was roughly three percent – meaning three out of a hundred people contracting the disease would die – today it is being estimated that a more accurate fatality rate is 0.2 or 0.3 percent. The reason for the change is researchers believe now that there were far more cases of COVID than has been realized and that the disease actually began in December rather than February and March 2020.

One researcher, Jay Bhattacharya, a Professor of Medicine, with a Ph.d. in Economics, at Stanford University, reported that in testing for antibodies, (which indicate that someone has had the disease) in San Diego County, CA, where about 1000 COVID cases had been identified, antibody tests indicated that 50,000 people had actually been infected. So the case numbers were off 50 fold.

Because of the controversy those findings, 82 similar studies have been conducted with the same extraordinary results, confirming that the average fatality rate is not three in one hundred, but two in one thousand.

Other research confirms that there is about a thousand-fold difference between the mortality rate in older people (70 and up) and that of children. For children COVID-19 is less dangerous than the seasonal flu, according to Bhattacharya. Two to three times more children die annually from the common flu than from COVID. For older people, however, COVID is much more deadly than the flu. About four in one hundred of those over 70 die from the disease.

Bhattacharya pointed out that the use of lockdowns have never before been used to control the spread of a disease. They were devised to slow the infection rate in order to prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed, a strategy with minimal results.

The lockdowns on businesses, however, are “turning out to have deadly effects.”

While many believe economic impacts are minor compared to health impacts, the reality is that more people will probably die of the economic impacts throughout the world than because of virus infections. The UN has estimated that 130 million additional people will starve this year as a result of the economic damage resulting from the lockdowns – a devastating reversal of the past 20 years during which a billion people have been lifted out of poverty.

Bhattacharya points out that deaths will also occur because other health treatments, including the immunization against other diseases, have not been pursued because people have had more fear of COVID than of the risks from other diseases. Deaths are expected to increase due to cancer and diabetes because of economic shutdowns. And, because of social isolation, suicide rates are already on the rise, especially true for youths, ages 18 through 24, who actually have little risk of death from the virus.

“Widespread lockdown policy has been a devastating public health mistake,” concludes Bhattacharya, who urges, “Our goal should therefore be to minimize mortality and social harm until we reach herd immunity.” He explained that herd immunity is not a strategy but a “biological fact that applies to most infectious diseases… The vaccine will help, but herd immunity is what will bring it to an end.”

Policies should be to allow those at minimal risk of death to live their lives normally, while better protecting those at highest risk.

The first 9,750 doses of the vaccine were delivered slated to be delivered to Montana ollowing its authorization from the Food and Drug Administration.

The first doses were  delivered to 10 major hospitals in the state’s seven largest communities. Doses delivered to the state in subsequent weeks will be reserved for rural health care workers and staff and residents of nursing facilities.

Bullock said 284 contracted health care workers are currently deployed in the state to assist in hospitals seeing a large number of COVID-19 patients. Close to 200 health care workers in the state are in isolation or quarantine due to exposure to the virus.

More than 73,303 people across Montana have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since March.

Yellowstone County has experienced the highest number of cases at 12,722, with 2,469 active cases as of Sunday. Total deaths in the county is 144.

So far 3,080 people have been hospitalized.