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Bullock, health experts stress safety measures as COVID-19 numbers spike

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Frontline medical professionals are seeing spikes in COVID-19 cases across Montana. Here, Big Sky Medical Center staff operate the hospital's Viral triage clinic in April. OUTLAW PARTNERS PHOTO

Many Montanans ignoring recommendations, cases increase 133 percent

By Joseph T. O’Connor EBS Editor-in-Chief

HELENA – On Wednesday, Sept. 30, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock held a virtual press conference featuring medical experts from across the state. The focus of the call: addressing the recent spate of COVID-19 cases statewide.

Montana has reported a total of 13,071 positive cases and 182 coronavirus-related deaths since March, according to the state health department, but has seen a dramatic increase in positive cases over the past few weeks. Yesterday, the state counted 287 new cases of the COVID-19 virus and three additional deaths. Today, Montana set a grim record, reporting 354 new cases and passing a single-day high of 344 set just five days ago.

The New York Times reports that over the past week Montana saw an average of 306 cases per day, an increase of more than 130 percent over the previous two weeks.

Six counties are reporting 65 percent of all new cases, Bullock said, including Gallatin, Yellowstone, Flathead, Roosevelt, Cascade and Big Horn. Statewide, positive coronavirus cases are stemming from schools, assisted living facilities, nursing homes and correctional facilities, he added.

The Gallatin health department today reported 36 new cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations jumped from three to five overnight.

“What’s most concerning is knowing what can happen to our healthcare system if we don’t get this virus under control now,” Bullock said. “And the way we can do it is by once again taking this virus seriously. It’s not that we’re overstressed right now but our hospitals are certainly busy, and this puts us in an especially difficult position as we move into cold and flu season.”

Bullock stressed that controlling the spread of COVID-19 will happen only if Montanans and visitors adhere to medical expert recommendations to wear masks in public, maintain social distancing and not gather in large groups. He said some Montanans are acting as if the virus doesn’t exist.

“There are folks that even think that somehow this virus is going to go away the day after the election,” Bullock said. “We know what we need to do.”

Dr. Mark Williams, chief physician officer at Bozeman Health and Dr. Shelly Harkins, chief medical officer at St. Peter’s Health in Helena joined Bullock during the press conference to call for an adherence to medical experts’ recommendations.

Using a football analogy, Harkins explained the current situation in Montana. “We’re going into halftime and we’ve lost the lead,” she said. “Halftime adjustments are critical. We have to change our course, especially since in the next two quarters we will likely also have additional opponents on the field. It will be flu and cold season.”

Harkins called for Montanans to double down on safety precautions in order to slow the spread of the virus. “We endorse the simple precautions shared with you today because we know they work. There is no question.”

Williams discussed the impacts Bozeman Health and Gallatin County are seeing, saying that as we enter the eighth month of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bozeman Health doctors and staff learned and adjusted to keep positive case numbers down. But, he said, those numbers are changing and are again affecting the hospital.

New COVID-19 cases are showing up primarily in younger demographics, according to the state health department.

“Despite the low numbers we’ve been experiencing, we’re now back up to full operations while also maintaining preparations for a COVID surge,” Williams said. “Our numbers are going up quickly, our hospitalizations are up slightly, and there are increasing concerns from our hospital partners throughout the state as to what they are experiencing.”

Stressing concern for loved ones and neighbors, Williams said Montanans must adhere to the guidelines put forth by state and county health departments. He said what’s most demoralizing for healthcare workers is when people ignore these safety precautions and put others at risk.

“We have dedicated nurses who work in our assisted living facilities and nursing homes who literally cry at the end of a shift because they feel a degree of helplessness in taking care of those residents of those facilities who are effectively cut off from families and friends because some of those in the community can’t abide by these simple measures,” he said.

Bullock made no indication if or when he might mandate further restrictions such as the stay-at-home order he put in place at the end of March, when EBS reported Gallatin County had 38 of the 90 total COVID-19 cases in Montana. But the governor said local governments would need to make their own recommendations to county commissions and health boards as needed. Indeed, some have.

“Right now, the Blackfeet Nation for an example has put a 14-day stay-at-home order in,” said Bullock, adding that at the state level they typically set thresholds and expectations of behavior throughout Montana. Community transmission levels are just one metric state health officials measure to gauge potential changes to health recommendations.

State officials also look for guidance from the federal level. Bullock said he and the state health team had a call last week with Dr. Deborah Birx, the coronavirus response coordinator for the White House.

Birx looked at positive case numbers in Montana and did not at the time recommend a statewide state-at-home directive. “She had looked at the numbers and it wasn’t like let’s shut down the state, but she expressed real concern,” Bullock said. “And it’s concern that I share.”

Bullock said wearing masks, social distancing and avoiding large gatherings of people can be as effective as closing down parts of the state economy in order to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“We know what we have to do,” he said. “We just have to do it.”

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