Officials plead for COVID prevention
Last updated 9/23/2020 at Noon
Gov. Steve Bullock and three of the state’s top communicable disease experts expressed concern during a press conference Tuesday with the way Montana’s cases of COVID-19 continue to rise in ways and steps people should take to reverse that.
Communicable Disease Control and Prevention Bureau Chief Jim Murphy said, at the time of the conference, the state had confirmed 10,700 cases, 600 hospitalizations, with 100 still active, and more 160 deaths.
Those numbers rose with today’s report, with 214 new cases including a case in Chinook Public Schools confirmed Tuesday, 10,912 total cases with 2,237 active and 124 hospitalized and 165 deaths.
Murphy said that last week saw a significant and concerning jump in cases by almost 500 more than the previous week and represents another all-time high, something Bullock said has happened repeatedly in the last few weeks alone.
Murphy said 19 of 56 counties in the state had increases in the amount of cases they were reporting and six of them had significant increases, including Deerlodge, Rosebud, Roosevelt, Flathead, Missoula and Yellowstone.
He said local public health is responding with contact tracing and the state has so far been able to meet demands for testing with turnaround times holding steady at 24 to 72 hours on average.
“The state public health lab is performing great, as are our partners,” he said. “Over 3,000 tests hit the Montana public health lab every day. At that rate, we are able to keep up.”
He said antigen testing is now being implemented in Montana, particularly in assisted living and long-term care facilities.
He said while this implementation is making detection more easy it is not yet wide-spread enough to have a significant impact on the case numbers and he has no reason to think it is in any way responsible for the recent increase in cases the state has seen.
Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Lead Epidemiologist Stacey Anderson said the increase in cases is represented in all age groups but the increase in school age children has risen by about 90 percent and many schools in the state have had cases.
“We all know that with schools opening we expected to see some cases related to that,” she said. “ … As of Friday, we have 62 schools that have reported COVID cases.”
Anderson said school re-openings are not the sole reason for the rise in cases by any stretch, with social events like family gatherings, parties and bar related excursions contributing as well.
She said an increase in cases in the 20 to 39 age range of about 40 percent has happened and it seems it is still rising.
She said long-term care and assisted living facilities are also seeing increases in transmission, along with prisons and jails.
Anderson said to curb the disease, people need to do the things public health has been recommending for months.
“Until we have a vaccine or an effective treatment for COVID, the best ways you can protect yourself and the people around you are thing things we’ve been talking about all along,” she said. “Social distancing … when you can’t do that, wear a mask, and ‘wear a mask’ means wear a mask correctly, it goes over your nose.”
She said people should stay home when sick, avoid people who are sick, sanitize frequently used items and wash hands especially with flu season coming.
Murphy said now is a great time for people to get their flu vaccine for the sake of their own health and the sake of the health care system.
State Medical Officer Gregory Holzman thanked Montana’s frontline health care workers and said the state has a unique opportunity to learn from other states with higher populations, using their experiences to inform Montana’s continuing response to the pandemic.
He said the scientific community has made strides in its understanding of the virus despite how new it is in a relative sense.
“While we still don’t know a lot about COVID-19 or the coronavirus, we have learned a lot over the last nine months,” he said.
Holzman said most people who contract COVID-19 have mild symptoms and recover without issue, however, there is a need for information about the long-term impact of the illness and he cited new studies that suggest inflammation in the heart may be a long-term result of even a relatively standard illness.
Despite this, he said, there are still many who have very protracted recoveries that can be painful and potentially deadly and the scientific community still doesn’t have a handle on what determines the outcome in individual cases.
“While we can say that those with underlying conditions have a higher chance of a poorer outcome, we cannot state how one individual will respond to getting this virus,” he said. “Will they have a bad outcome, will they have no symptoms whatsoever, we really don’t have a good understanding.”
Holzman cautioned the public against contributing to the politics that have become tied up in the response to the pandemic and to do everything they can to reduce the spread.
“For all of it that is going around, political spin will not stop the coronavirus, we need to work together to decrease the diseases in our communities,” he said. “When disease rates rise, we see more suffering in our communities, we see more death, we see more schools close down, not necessarily because of a health mandate, but because there are not teachers to teach, and no students to learn. We see businesses suffer as people are more nervous to go out and instead of going to a local shop, they might order something on Amazon.”
He said, despite the scientific unknowns, a lot is known about how to stop the spread, and that responsibility lies with everyone in a given community. He pleaded to people who get the virus or were in close contact with someone who did to follow the guidance of public health.
“Back in August, I’m sure you saw the reports that said COVID-19 was now the third-leading cause of death in the United States. Well that isn’t true for Montana. It is only recently that the increased number of deaths have gotten (COVID-19) into the top 10, and, sadly it just passed motor vehicle fatalities ,which has been a major public health concern for decades,” he said. “ … We have traffic laws, seatbelt laws, public education about impaired driving and much much more. This is all to prevent death and undue suffering.”
Holzman said he understands why people are so tired of having the pandemic situation around but, if the trends don’t change, Montana will be in trouble.
“While we all have COVID-19 fatigue we all need to work together. Like any team sport, there will be ups and downs along the way, but unless we work together the chances of meeting our goals and preventing untimely suffering and death goes down significantly,” he said. “We’ve seen what has happened around the country in both metropolitan and rural area, and we don’t need to have those outcomes in Montana. Watch your distance, wash your hands, wear a mask, for your fellow Montanans, for your health, for the economy, we need to do it all for each other, otherwise I’m afraid we might see the some of the outbreaks and some of the stress on the hospitals that we’ve seen in Texas and Florida and many other states.”
Holzman stressed that people should not stop being vigilant for the virus just because a vaccine is in the works, and that Montanans must continue their individual efforts to make sure their community is safe.
“I hope the vaccine is around the corner, I hope it is effective and safe and if it meets all those requirements, I will be in line with everyone else to get it,” he said. “But to sit around and wait for that, and allow more people to die, more people to suffer… is just not something I’m willing to stand for.”
Bullock followed up the three of them by reiterating that this situation is not a decision between the health of Montana’s economy and its people.
“You can’t have a healthy economy without a healthy workforce,” he said.
Despite the grim news, he said, Montana continues to do well relative to many other states in terms of economic recovery. He said the Montana Department of Labor and Industry recently ranked Montana sixth in employment performance since the COVID-19 recession peak, and he said Montana had smaller job loss compared to the U.S. with August’s unemployment rate significantly lower than the U.S.
But he said this good news may not continue if outbreaks crop up and cases continue to rise and that the opposition to public health recommendations harms businesses in the long-term.
“Ignoring public health best practices is not some form of resistance, all it does is harm our small businesses and keep us from our goal of minimizing the impact of this virus,” he said.
Bullock said the White House put out a document that encourages states to impose fines on people failing to wear masks in areas of high transmission, but he’s not fond of the idea for this state.
“We do things the Montana way here, and we aren’t going to start encouraging the issuing of fines,” he said.
Bullock said he brought the document up because even the federal government, which he has criticized in the past for playing into the politicization of masks, is now willing to go this far just to get people to wear them.
He said he thinks Montana can get its hands around the virus and it shouldn’t have to be through fines and law enforcement.
“This shouldn’t be about fines, even if that’s what the White House wants, it should be about Montanans helping one another,” he said.