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Montana view: Congress needs to do more

Montana view: Congress needs to do more

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The federal government knew COVID-19 was coming. It had weeks, if not several months, to prepare.

That's why news of a conversation between frustrated governors and President Donald J. Trump was disturbing. Keep in mind it was Trump who predicted that the cases of coronavirus would soon be zero after the number hit 15, and it was Trump who wanted the nation reopened fully by Easter.

The governors voiced concerns that the federal government is not providing enough testing and supplies, and Trump said he had not heard anything about the shortages, when, in fact, Vice President Mike Pence, who is heading up the response team, had governors reportedly upset for the same issues several days ago. There was simply no excuse for the inaction.

We point this out not as a swipe toward Trump, who has rightly pushed his administration to get relief directly into the hands of Americans. His administration came up with what appears to be a very good relief plan and he signed it immediately after Congress had acted. The stock market and the economy appears to have responded positively. It's not like everything the federal government has done is bad.

Yet, our concern is twofold. First, we share Montana Gov. Steve Bullock's worry that there will not be enough testing for the coronavirus.

Secondly, we worry that the federal government has not done enough to relax rules for crisis production of essential equipment. For example, we worry that local makers of products ranging from breathing masks to hand sanitizer still may have too many loopholes to go through and too many restrictions so that all companies that can be repurposed to help move swiftly and safely through this unprecedented time can be utilized.

 Any crisis has the ability to expose shortcomings and weak links in our supply and distribution systems. We hope that this causes our federal government and Congress to consider ways to make it easier for products to get to the market while also putting very well defined parameters on when such measures can be used. In other words, we need to have a set of standards and rules for normal times, and we also need to a set of rules for emergencies.

Just as essential, we need clear definitions that won't allow the rules to be exploited. For example, we need more personal protective gear and we need incentives for companies to manufacture those items. But, smaller, local companies which could convert to manufacturing them may be facing too many hurdles, and may not be able to go through the loopholes to help ease the crisis.

Let's be clear: That's not necessarily Congress' fault. We are experiencing a pandemic that hasn't happened in nearly a century, and we haven't been in a war that's challenged the nation domestically in nearly 80 years.

This means it's a good time to reevaluate our preparedness as a nation, and how much flexibility we have in times of crisis.

We share Bullock's concern about testing. We know that local and state officials are doing everything they can to contact trace the pattern of residents who test positive for COVID-19. However, if there's not enough testing — which is a reality as Bullock mentioned — we will be unable to understand how the disease is moving through Montana and the chance of limiting it becomes nearly impossible.

Bullock used real numbers to prove his point in the call with Trump. He mentioned that the state is going through around 400 tests per day currently. That number continues to grow. However, Montana's capacity is around 500, which means that it is close to exceeding that, and the state has seen a limited number of tests, and orders for the coronavirus test canceled. In other words, Bullock said Montana is just a day's worth of tests away from falling behind. And, falling behind could mean that medical officials will be flying blindly, and it means possible exposure for residents and medical professionals.

We saw a great example of bipartisan negotiation last week when Congress came together to pass the historically large relief bill. Now, Congress needs to act again to clear any remaining production hurdles and ensure that healthcare infrastructure has enough testing by whatever means necessary.

The Billings Gazette

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