2021 State of the Community: Missoula Renewed

April 12, 2021, City Club Missoula Video

Commissioner David Strohmaier

As some of you have heard me say before, and are probably sick of hearing me say it, whether you live in the city of Missoula or live outside the city limits, we are all residents of Missoula County—all 2,600 square miles of it. And as we think about the future, let’s never forget that the cultural landscape of our county extends back in time to the receding waters of glacial lake Missoula.

Put a pin in that.

This past year has challenged our community in really profound ways that none of us saw coming. Many of us grew up hearing stories from parents or grandparents of living through the Great Depression or World War II, of rationing and collective sacrifice. And while we’ve experienced moments of national trauma since then, many of those experiences have been from the comfort of armchairs, lacking the visceral, shared experience of the pandemic we’re still in. We’ve all lived it and breathed it.

Over the past year, we’ve borne witness to injustice and inequity in our society—even right here in Missoula County. We’ve been separated from loved ones in assisted living facilities, in some cases unable to hold their hands until the light has nearly departed from their eyes. None of us—and I repeat NONE OF US—have gone unscathed.

COVID-19 in Missoula County has brought out the best of folks; it’s also, regrettably, brought out some of the absolute worst, and there is no way to sugar coat that. As difficult as it is, we’ve got to hold both of these realities simultaneously. We absolutely must root out the callousness, indifference, bigotry and hate—personal and systemic—in our community. But let’s also recognize and celebrate the selflessness, beauty and generosity of so many. All in recognition that life is a fragile gift and that we have a choice to embrace life, and do so in a spirit of abundance rather than scarcity.

I believe the state of our community is strong, but it is oh so fragile.

Through it all, I remain optimistic, and am forever grateful to everyone in our community who’s stepped up during this past year to care for one another. It’s been an absolute joy (and, I might add, a hell of a lot of fun) working with Commissioners Slotnick and Vero, whose energy and optimism and creativity is a daily inspiration to me. To date, Missoula County has spent upwards of $20 million addressing the pandemic and associated impacts. Thanks to our Finance Department, and many others, we’ve navigated the federal requirements of the CARES Act and FEMA to cover these costs and avoid retrenchment or local taxpayers covering the financial burden.

My thanks go out to the entire Missoula County team in responding to the pandemic: the Office of Emergency Management, City-County Health Department, Partnership Health Center and first responders who have conducted contact tracing, testing and, now, vaccinations. The same could be said for all our community partners, from hospitals to non-profits to businesses to faith communities. And lest we fail to learn from this experience, we’ve worked with the University of Montana and Historical Museum at Fort Missoula and others to launch the Missoula County COVID-19 Documentation Project so that future generations understand our response to the pandemic.

Our 11 independently elected county officials, and their departments, have really pushed the envelope of creativity during this past year, from our Missoula County Attorney Office’s pretrial diversion program to our Missoula County Treasurer’s Office iSAM and Map Missoula electronic tools. Our IT staff supported remote work for upwards of a thousand users. And the list goes on. We even pulled off a major federal election during these unprecedented circumstances.

Faced with the reality that traditional shelters couldn’t operate at full capacity, we’re proud to have partnered with the United Way and Hope Rescue Mission to stand up the Temporary Safe Outdoor Space, a success story that many thought was impossible. Housing remains an acute challenge for our community, which is why we’ve hired a housing coordinator and initiated the process to develop a housing plan for the county.

Our planning and grants staff have been doing double duty, pivoting from their pre-COVID work plan to spin up an emergency rental assistance program, relief fund, and small business job retention fund.

And then there’s the Sx͏ʷtpqyen Neighborhoods Master Plan and BUILD grant implementation, updating our zoning code, launching a Food Policy Advisory Board, planning for the future of our parks and open space, and figuring out how to coexist with fire on the landscape. Climate change has not abated, and neither has our commitment to mitigate and adapt to this global crisis through our 100% clean electricity goal, the Climate Ready Missoula Plan, and solarizing county facilities.

Because we didn’t just hit the pause button during the pandemic, we’re now ready to hit the accelerator as we round this bend. I can’t wait to see you at our rejuvenated fairgrounds this summer, the groundbreaking of the Rocky Mountain Exploration Center (where rumor has it, Jerry Marks will begin his second 50-year tour of duty with Missoula County!), and the opening of our flagship public library.

Finally, we believe that at least part of the light at the end of this pandemic tunnel might very well be . . . you guessed it . . . a passenger train! Last year, Missoula County spearheaded an effort to establish the first passenger rail authority in state history, which came to fruition in November when 12 counties, from Sanders to Wibaux, executed a joint resolution to establish the Authority. The bigger story, I believe, extends beyond rail: namely, it’s still possible to bridge the urban-rural, east-west, red-blue, and ideological divides that have split this state and nation apart.

Back to that thing I put a pin in earlier. Justice, equity, diversity and inclusion must be at the center of everything we do in this county, yet it’s an aspiration we have yet to fully realize. We’ve created a new Community Justice Department, and I’m excited to say that earlier this year we hired our first diversity coordinator, Jamar Galbreath. With the help of our county auditor, we’re reevaluating how even bone-dry procurement policies can be enlivened to address equity.

Before I wrap up, I’d like to share a short video (below), focusing on our strong collaboration with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, and remembering that this place has a rich and deep heritage that carries into the future.

In the spirit of gratitude and thanks, I want to recognize the many years of service that Ellen Leahy has provided to the City-County Health Department, and welcome D’Shane Barnett as he assumes the health director role shortly.

The challenge before us, is what have learned? What will we remember? And how can we become more resilient and caring as a community?

Missoula County recognizes the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, remembering that this place has a rich and deep heritage that carries into the future.

Commissioner Dave Strohmaier presented at the April 11, 2021, State of the Community: Missoula Renewed, with City of Missoula Mayor John Engen and University of Montana President Seth Bodnar. Each year, City Club Missoula hosts the State of the Community, an up-close look at three major institutions that shape our community: the city, the county and the University of Montana. The full video is available on the City Club of Missoula’s website.

Missoula County to Remain in Vaccine Phase 1b Next Week

To allow more residents in Phase 1b the opportunity to get vaccinated, Missoula County will remain in that phase for at least the next week before moving into Phase 1b+.  

As of March 1, 98% of Missoula County’s state-allocated vaccines have been administered, with an operational gap between when vaccine is received and when clinics are held accounting for the remaining 2%. Despite the county’s high administration rate, approximately 85% of county residents who qualify for Phase 1b have yet to receive their first dose of vaccine. The Vaccine Coordination Team and health officials want to provide those vulnerable residents extra time to sign up for a vaccination before opening access up to the broader criteria included in Phase 1b+. The team hopes to announce next week a firm date to move into Phase 1b+.   

“We appreciate that the state guidance on Phase 1b+ still allows local officials to look at data for their communities and use that to inform their decisions,” said Office of Emergency Management Director Adriane Beck, who heads up the Vaccine Coordination Team. “We know a lot of people are eager to get vaccinated, and we’re confident we’ll keep pace with the increasing supply coming into Missoula County and that we’ll be able to get shots in the arms of everyone who wants a vaccine.”  

All public clinics will be open to Missoula County residents in Phase 1b, and residents can find information on when appointments are available at covid19.missoula.co or by calling 406-258-INFO (4636) from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day Depending on their patient base, individual providers and pharmacies may choose to move into the state’s Phase 1b+ sooner.  

Also, following President Joe Biden’s directive this week, many local pharmacies will offer portions of their federally allocated vaccines to educators and childcare workers. This includes a partnership between Granite Pharmacy in Missoula, Missoula County Public Schools and the Vaccine Coordination Team to hold mass vaccination clinics for about 1,000 MCPS educators. Other local pharmacies are also opening appointments to educators, who can visit the Vaccine Information page at covid19.missoula.co for more information.  

As of Monday, March 8, the following Missoula County residents will be eligible to sign up for vaccination:  

  • People 70 and older 
  • Native Americans ages 16-69 
  • People of color ages 16-69 
  • People ages 16-69 with one or more of the following health conditions: cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, Down syndrome, heart conditions, immunocompromised from organ transplant, severe obesity (BMI 40 or higher), sickle cell disease, and Type 1 or Type 2 diabetes 
  • Educators and childcare workers (at participating pharmacies only) 

The Missoula County COVID-19 Vaccine Coordination Team is managed by the Western Montana All Hazard Incident Management Team under the Office of Emergency Management. The team formed in January at the request of the Missoula County commissioners and the mayor of Missoula to coordinate the distribution of vaccine in Missoula County. The team aims to reduce public anxiety by providing timely, accurate information and to identify and address barriers to administering the vaccine to all who wish to receive it. 

Vaccine Website, Call Center Launch as County Starts Transition to Phase 1b

As COVID-19 vaccine providers in Missoula County start the transition to vaccinating individuals in Phase 1b, residents can now find up-to-date information about vaccine options by visiting https://covid19.missoula.co/ online or calling 258-INFO if they do not have Internet access.

The Missoula County Vaccine Information page on the website contains information on vaccine providers in the county, including how, when and where each provider is administering the vaccine. Residents with regular healthcare providers should look for that provider’s information on the website. People who do not have regular providers should watch the page for announcements of public clinics, which will begin as more supply of vaccine becomes available. Public clinics will be held soon at the former Lucky’s Market on the south side of Southgate Mall and at the University of Montana. Watch the vaccine information website at https://covid19.missoula.co/ for details on dates and how to register in the next few days.

While vaccine supply will ultimately determine the pace, providers will generally move into Phase 1b by the end of the month. Phase 1b includes residents 70 and older; American Indians and people of color 16 and older, as they may be at elevated risk for COVID-19; and those ages 16-69 with qualifying health conditions. Missoula County residents who meet the 1a criteria but who did not get vaccinated can still be vaccinated as providers move through the phases.  

The state allocation of vaccine to each provider will inform each provider’s strategies in scheduling appointments for vaccine administration. Different providers are managing their patients differently and at different speeds as vaccine supply changes for each provider. As they move through the phases, many providers are contacting their eligible patients who meet the current Phase 1b criteria by mail, telephone, e-mail and established website communication platforms. Residents should not call local hospitals or their providers to receive vaccine doses until they have been instructed to by their healthcare provider. Residents should watch the website to track vaccine availability across Missoula County and continue to monitor where the “line” is and where their places are in it.

The website will also link to a map of vaccine providers and a dashboard that tracks vaccination progress in the county.

For those without Internet access, staff at the vaccine call center can assist with information and scheduling for providers with online registration. Residents will be able to access this call center by calling 406-258-INFO and following the prompts. For medical (non-logistical) questions about the vaccine, visit the Missoula City-County Health Department’s Frequently Asked COVID-19 Vaccine Questions page at https://www.missoulainfo.com/vaccine-faq. This information is also available through the call center for those without Internet access.

Residents can help providers by refraining from calling them directly and using the website instead.

Missoula County has 26 vaccine providers registered to administer the COVID-19 vaccine; however, the limiting factor is the availability of vaccine. Missoula City-County Health Department staff recently learned from state health administrators that Missoula County can expect to receive approximately 1,500 first doses each week for the foreseeable future, based on the state’s entire allocation of approximately 13,000 first doses. Missoula County will likely have nearly 40,000 people expecting to receive the vaccine in Phase 1b. The vaccine scarcity is not unique to Missoula County or to Montana; the shortage is nationwide. Health department leaders continue to advocate for more doses at every opportunity. While we wait, they encourage people to continue to take the standard precautions against transmission of the virus: masking, social distancing, washing hands and keeping their social circles small.

The Missoula County COVID-19 Vaccine Coordination Team is managed by the Western Montana All Hazard Incident Management Team under the Office of Emergency Management. The team formed recently at the request of the Missoula County commissioners and the mayor of Missoula to coordinate the distribution of vaccine in Missoula County. The team aims to reduce public anxiety by providing timely, accurate information and to identify and address barriers to administering the vaccine to all who wish to receive it.

“A primary goal of the vaccination coordination team is to inform the public about vaccine availability in Missoula County and to help direct those eligible residents to a vaccination provider,” said Adriane Beck, director of the Missoula County Office of Emergency Management. “Vaccine supply is extremely limited right now, and not every provider will be receiving vaccine. We thank the public for their engagement and encourage people to monitor the website for changing information as supply increases.”

Missoula County, City launch COVID-19 Vaccination Coordination Team

Missoula County’s Office of Emergency Management, in partnership with the City of Missoula, will stand up a Type 3 Incident Management Team to coordinate COVID-19 vaccine administration throughout the county.

OEM Director Adriane Beck will oversee the efforts of the Missoula County Vaccination Coordination Team, which will open lines of coordination among all vaccine providers to ensure accurate and timely information and data exchange, coordinated vaccine efforts, sharing of resources where appropriate, and planning for each of the phases of vaccination in Missoula County. This team will remain in place until COVID-19 vaccine is widely available in Missoula County to any resident 16 or older who wants to get vaccinated.

Employing the incident management structure, more typically used in Missoula County to respond to natural disasters like wildfires and flooding, will provide the command and management infrastructure to coordinate logistical, fiscal, planning, operational, safety and other aspects of a large-scale vaccination effort among the many entities that will administer the vaccine as we move into Phase 1B.

“As the county enters Phase 1B and beyond, the team will develop strategies for identifying and connecting eligible citizens with a vaccine provider for administration as well as coordinate efforts around mass vaccination events across Missoula County,” Beck said.

The IMT will help centralize efforts among local hospitals and other healthcare providers, the University of Montana, the health department, pharmacies and other vaccine providers.

“We ask for the public’s patience as we develop the strategies necessary to ensure all those Missoula County residents who meet the phase 1B criteria can be connected to a vaccine provider in the quickest, most efficient manner possible,” Beck said. “We also ask for our citizens to be active participants in this process, pay attention to prioritization criteria, be informed about where you personally fall into the categorization and be ready to receive the vaccine when it is time. Much like boarding an airplane, the process goes much quicker when those waiting to board are ready to get in line when their section is called.”

Once these strategies are finalized, communicating up-to-date, accurate information about them to the public will be crucial. The Missoula City-County Joint Information Center, which consists of the multiple government agencies and community organizations responding to COVID-19, will help ensure timely information is widely distributed through the news media, social media, online at covid19.missoula.co and other channels.

Missoula County to Award COVID-19 Job Retention Grants to 27 Local Businesses

Missoula County commissioners on Tuesday approved distribution of $624,738 from the COVID-19 Small Business Job Retention Fund to 27 local businesses impacted by the pandemic to help them retain jobs for low- to moderate-income employees.  

Of the grants awarded, 58% went to businesses in the food and drink industry, for a total distribution of $365,000. Twelve percent went to retail businesses, 10% to professional services, 10% to preschool/childcare, 6% to transportation and the remaining 4% to businesses in the lodging industry.  

The 27 recipients experienced an average 45% decline in revenue since the beginning of the pandemic and had to lay off 158 employees. Without the grant funding, it is projected there would be another 166 layoffs in the first three months of 2021. 

“Demand for the funds was overwhelming,” said Melissa Gordon, program manager for Grants and Community Programs. “While the county isn’t able to provide assistance to every business in need, I am hopeful the program will provide the support necessary for grant recipients to retain employment opportunities and stay afloat until the new federal assistance becomes available.”   

In total, the county received 126 applications requesting $2.875 million in funding. The application portal opened at 9 a.m. Dec. 10, and it only took a few hours for the amount of funding requested to exceed the amount available. Applications were considered on a first-come, first-served basis. 

The grants are supported through the Community Development Block Grant Economic Development Revolving Loan Fund, which are federal Department of Housing and Urban Development funds intended to stimulate economic development by providing loans and/or grants to create or retain jobs for low- and moderate-income people. Low- to moderate-income is defined as individuals or families whose household income is up to 80% of the median income for the area when adjusted for family size.  

With the sunsetting of current state and federal COVID-19 assistance programs and the slow winter season just around the corner, commissioners allocated a portion of the available CDBG funds to provide working capital grants to help retain jobs and reduce the significant fiscal impact COVID-19 has had on small businesses and the Missoula workforce.