Missoula city, county concerned over pandemic costs as virus surges

John Engen
Posted at 9:31 AM, Sep 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-03 11:31:29-04

MISSOULA — While Missoula County leads Montana in vaccination rates at around 63% of the eligible population, nearly 40% remain unvaccinated, and local officials are trying to do the math to determine the future costs they’ll possibly incur as unvaccinated individuals get sick.

The Delta variant of COVID-19 is more virulent than its predecessor, which swept across the state last fall, killing more than 1,000 adults and hospitalizing countless more. With the new strain afoot, the number of cases are rising sharply, returning to figures not seen since last winter.

“We were chatting this morning about whether there’s a way to make some kind of an estimate on how many people are unvaccinated, and given a reasonable presumption that they’re all going to get COVID” said Missoula County Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “And how many people are vaccinated, and if 1% of them get COVID, and what percent will get hospitalized, and what a typical number of contacts are.”

With a population of more than 110,000 people and 40% of it still unvaccinated, tens of thousands remain at risk of contracting Covid. A percent of them will require hospitalization, and some of them will die.

Costs of public health during a pandemic include contact tracing for effective quarantine strategies, staffing extra hours at the health department, sheltering the vulnerable and the most at risk, and other expenses the state and federal government may no longer fund.

Those costs could fall to the local level and may be hard to cover, officials suggested.

Mask mandates and sheltering in place are no longer an option given new state law and the preference of the Governor’s Office, which has resisted such actions to protect public health. And without those protections in place and winter approaching – and school starting – the number of cases are expected to continue an uphill climb.

“We need a reasonable estimate on what this will cost us until we run out of people to get sick,” Slotnick said. “It seems we’re in a different spot than the first go-round.”

City and county officials also are exploring a return to pandemic standards around public meetings. No longer able to implement a mask mandate, the City Council has returned to a Zoom format and has no plans to hold meetings in public any time soon.

“We’re still Zoom until we see some reasonable change in numbers for all sorts of reasons,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “Our hybrid capability is in place, but council has gone back to Zoom-only meetings.”

Missoula County began a hybrid approach to public meetings when the pandemic was appearing to ease. But with the Delta variant now the dominant strain and cases on the rise, it may revisit its approach.

“It’s something we’ve started to talk about, moving department-level meetings back to Zoom,” said county CAO Chris Lounsbury.