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Bullock warns to take precautions to reduce virus spread

One new case confirmed in Blaine County


Last updated 7/23/2020 at Noon

Gov. Steve Bullock held a press conference Wednesday to discuss the new cases of COVID-19 in the state and provide an update on the Coronavirus Relief Fund.

"I'm incredibly grateful to so many across our state - we are serving to protect the health of Montana and Montanans, and taking seriously our responsibility to wear a mask," he said. "As we continue to see a significant amount of new cases each day in Montana we continue to see the large gatherings where folks are not taking proper precautions are leading to new cases."

For example, he said, a cluster involved in a collegiate sports team and their friends in Montana included 20 cases and any contacts in one county alone that later connected to additional cases in three other counties.

Another example was a wedding in Montana was attended by individuals who later tested positive for COVID-19 and were infectious during that wedding, he said. 

"These new cases attended to other social events while they were infectious, one of the new subsequent three new cases were identified," he added. "Part of a separate event were good social distancing was practiced no new cases identified."

The state reported 97 new cases and one new death this morning. The state total is 2,910 cases and 43 deaths.

Locally, the only new case was confirmed in Blaine County through contact tracing, bringing its total to seven cases, all active.

Liberty County has one recovered case, confirmed in March, and Hill County has 34 cases, 20 active, while Chouteau County has three confirmed cases, two active.

Bullock said the state is also seeing a number of cases from individuals who either went to work while sick or didn't follow the quarantine or isolation instructions from local public health officials.

As much as people want to be with family and friends to socialize or to celebrate life events these decisions can have long-reaching impacts of effects, Bullock said.

"We all need to work together and find ways to gather safely to follow public health guidelines and to protect each other from COVID-19," he said. "We can reduce the spread of this virus with making normal habits of basic steps like staying home when sick, social distancing, practicing good hygiene, and masking up whether indoors or even at an outdoor gathering."

Bullock cannot run for re-election due to term limits and is running for the U.S. Senate. He faces incumbent Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and Wendie Fredrickson, who is running as a Green Party candidate although the Green Party told the Havre Daily News they have no affiliation with her or the PAC supporting her.

Bullock said during Wednesday's press conference that the state is has also focused on its economic recovery, he said.

Through the Coronavirus Relief Fund, he said, the state has been able to provide immediate relief to Montanans to who need it most and also think about ways to sustain business and organization over the long-term to ensure the communities are made vibrant.

In the three months the state has had access to the $1.25 billion Coronavirus Relief Fund, the state has allocated more than $800 million of those dollars, he said.

He added that in addition to tracking funds awarded the comprehensive list of dollars advocated can be found at covidrelief.mt.gov under the resources tab.

"Some of these funds have been directed to grant programs - created support businesses, individuals and jumpstart industries across our state," he said. 

Other funds were used for programs involving public health and schools, he said.

Several other programs worked to address the varies challenges that businesses are facing right now, he said, and over the long-term including a program to reimburse businesses as they purchase personal protective equipment to keep employees and  their customers safe.

"Over $100 million has been paid out the door from the dozen grant programs with dollars going to all 56 counties," Bullock said. "Over the past month, the Montana Department of Commerce has sent out as many grants each day as it does in average year. The Business Stabilization Grant, which has been the most in demand program, it has awarded over $60 million to help over 7,000 businesses cover rent, utilities and bring employees back to work."

He said nearly 900 additional stabilization applicants have been reviewed and contacted, but haven't responded to repeated requests from the Department for either additional documents or payment information.

The state remains focused among all the various grant programs and ensuring it has the controls in place, and the dollars to go to people who need it the most and have been impacted directly by this pandemic, he said.

"I am also pleased that the program to reimburse local governments is in full swing," he added. "Part of the $800 million that we've allocated includes up to $300 million for anticipated costs incurred by local governments related to COVID-19. At this time, federal guidance only allows local state governments to use fund for those direct costs to COVID-19 and the funds cannot be used to backfill any revenue shortfalls."

The first round of requests, he said, came from local governments across the state and that state has gotten $32 million out the door, so far.

He said right now, it is planned to have four rounds of reimbursements through the year.

He added that he knows Congress is starting or planning to negotiate a new Coronavirus Relief Package soon, and he is encouraged that they will be considering potential revenue assistance for local and state governments.

"I encourage Congress to take this moment in time seriously and address many of the many challenges the states all across the country are facing," Bullock said. "As I said before, in just three months, we've allocated about $800 million to respond to both the short- and long-term needs, economic needs of Montanans."

He said the Coronavirus Relief Fund was intended to assist the state's response in the pandemic through December.

Things have rapidly changed throughout the pandemic, he said, and it's clear that virus is still presenting significant challenges to people's health and safety as well as economic stability.

"We have to ensure that we have the resources to weather the next six months," he said. "Because we've held back some money we've retained our ability to be flexible and act quickly when new needs are identified, but it became clear that schools didn't have the resources they needed to make safe plans to re-open in the fall and knowing schools can't wait to see if Washington acts. We're able to allocate $75 million from the Coronavirus Relief Fund to our K-12 schools.

"We've learned a lot about this virus and its impacts over the past few months, we certainly can't predict what will come our way through the rest of the year, but we can expect businesses, individuals and local governments could very well face real challenges," he added. "We still have a long road ahead of us and we'll continue to closely monitor the needs in our communities and address them. I'm grateful to all the businesses and individuals who have worked through this transparent process with us to ensure that we're getting dollars flowing in our community and work toward a safe economic recovery, but also making sure we'll be able to meet long-term needs."

He was told last week that Quest Diagnostics, which is the private lab the state has been using to process the tests from community surveillance events, would no longer be able to process Montana's test for at least several weeks, he said.

He added that was in addition to already an unacceptable delay time in getting testing results from Quest and this is all a result of an increase in cases across our nation and the inability of that private lab as well as other private labs to keep up with the demand.

"Over the previous four weeks we've performed a total of 62, 500 tests - surpassing our testing target of 60,000 per month," Bullock said. "Last week alone, we performed the most tests to date at 18,521 a week.

"It is in the best interest in our state that we continue to increase our testing capacity to get our hands around this virus," he added. "I certainly refuse to let the shortcomings from the lack of a national testing strategy stop us in our tracks."

The state is partnering with Montana State University to do surveillance testing, he said, and the state lab is working with the university on the validation on their machine.

He said he anticipates the university's lab will begin live samples from 500 people per day starting next week. 

"I'm confident with MSU's research enterprise and ingenuity, Montana will have much of it's testing capacity done here in state at the university and through our state lab," Bullock said. "... Montana State University has been an enthusiastic partner in helping our state resolve the testing capacity shortage as a result of Quest. I'm so incredibly grateful for that partnership as we all work together for the people of Montana to find a path forward in the new challenges that have been presented to us."


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