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Montanans love Montana. We love our communities, and we have a strong sense of personal responsibility in every aspect of our lives. These strengths and shared values are what we need to turn the COVID challenge into an opportunity to make our community stronger.

Montanans are well-equipped to deal with COVID because we regularly work together on similar challenges: hunting and fishing. When hunting and fishing, Montanans are a strong community with a civic duty to follow the rules of fair chase and the regulations established by Fish, Wildlife and Parks to ensure our fish and game are available for future generations. We ensure our partners have permits, and we dial 1-800-TIP-MONT if we see violations. Our wildlife is a common pool resource and our commitment to our community keeps our traditions alive for future generations.

When we lower our guard on poaching, our wildlife disappear. With less wildlife there are fewer opportunities for hunting, fewer people adopt the tradition and fewer are left to protect it – the dominoes fall and we all lose. The COVID epidemic is similar to managing our wildlife because a failure to work together can deplete other resources we depend on: our hospitals and our local businesses. While working with the New York state COVID task force, I saw how the dominoes fall when COVID hits.

The first domino to fall was the intensive care units. Montana has roughly 1 bed available for every 1,000 people in the state. Left unchecked, COVID-19 epidemics grow extremely fast, doubling every three days with 2% of infections causing hospitalizations. Within 12 days, we can go from 0.5% of our population – 1 out of 200 — infected to 8% of our population infected, causing a sudden demand for 1.6 beds for every 1,000 people, filling our remaining beds, overloading our medical system, and forcing hospitals to make tough triage calls about for whom they can and can’t provide care. When medical services shut down, we become unable to get potentially life-saving care for treatable causes of death.

After the ICU domino falls, managers at hospitals sound alarm bells to mayors and governors. Because people were unable to reduce the spread of the disease by their own devices, mayors and governors were forced to regulate crowd sizes and issue shelter-in-place orders, causing local businesses to suffer.

We can’t control New York, Arizona or Texas, but we can prevent COVID dominoes from falling in Montana; we can relieve the mayors and governor from the duty of managing us by succeeding in managing ourselves. As a community, we can rise to the challenge, take personal responsibility for our transmission and susceptibility, and slow growth enough to keep our hospitals and businesses running.

Based on a growing number of studies, we believe some of the best ways to reduce transmission are to avoid crowds where possible and, if crowds are unavoidable, wear masks when in crowded spaces and ensure crowded indoor spaces are well-ventilated. We don’t need to wear masks when we’re hiking, horseback riding or fly fishing on Brad Pitt Rock on the Gallatin, but when we walk into stores and shops our masks can be a source of pride and commitment to our community. Mask-wearing is an act of kindness that holds the ICU door open to anyone who gets sick and needs a bed in the hospital. Mask-wearing keeps the doors open to support local businesses.

Releasing a big brown trout and following regulations in hunting when nobody is looking is an act of kindness for other hunters and future generations. Similarly, taking the personal responsibility to wear a mask before walking into the store or church is an act of kindness to our community. Every mask I see in the store is a neighbor doing their part to keep our community healthy and our businesses thriving.

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Alex Washburne received his PhD in quantitative and computational biology at Princeton University, spent two years working on microbiome data analysis at Duke University and is now a research scientist at Montana State University. He recently co-lead a study estimating 8.7 million Americans had COVID in March, and he has consulted various private-sector, county, state, national and international managers with COVID responses.

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