Nate Hegyi / Mountain West News Bureau
LIBBY, Mont. — Frank Fahland has spent most days since the pandemic began at the site of his dream house, working to finish a 15-year labor of love while keeping away from town and the people closest to him.
Like thousands of people from Libby and Lincoln County, in the far northwestern corner of Montana, the 61-year-old Fahland has lungs already scarred by years of breathing in the asbestos fibers that have contaminated the area’s dust and soil. The asbestos is a legacy of a now-defunct plant in the area that made vermiculite, a mineral used in insulation and gardening.
Fahland recently gave a visitor a tour of his partially finished log home, overlooking a meadow that stretches to the foothills of the Cabinet Mountains. He struggled to climb a small hill and stopped to reach for his inhaler.
“It feels like someone is standing on your chest,” he explains, “or almost like someone stuffed a pillow down there in your lung.”
Fahland’s condition makes him more vulnerable to complications from COVID-19, so he’s keeping his distance from people, in hopes of avoiding infection. He has kept his distance from his son and granddaughter for months and he recently wrote his will.
“If it hadn’t been for COVID my will would not be written. But it is now,” Fahland says. “It’s filed in the courthouse and the whole goddamn thing is done. That gives you some idea of how seriously I take this.”
He’s not alone in taking such precautions against the virus. Lincoln County has one of the nation’s highest asbestos mortality rates. At least 400 people have died from asbestos-related diseases, which can include asbestosis, mesothelioma and lung cancer. At least 1 in 10 people in Libby have an asbestos-related illness, according to Miles Miller, a physician assistant at the Center for Asbestos Related Disease.
“Our patients having an underlying lung disease would make recovery from COVID-19 more difficult,” Miller says.
Lincoln County, population 20,000, largely was spared from outbreaks of the novel coronavirus at the beginning, which Miller chalked up to the community’s vigilance in testing, tracking and prevention efforts.
But by the fall, cases began to climb in the county along with the rest of Montana. By early October, the number of confirmed cases in Lincoln County was 170, nearly double the count at the end of August. County health officials said in a Facebook post that cases were all over the county and “it would be irresponsible to classify any towns as safe.”