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Bullock: Montanans have to act to stop spread of COVID-19

Gov. Steve Bullock said during a press conference Wednesday that Montanans have to get a hold on the COVID-19 pandemic to stop record-setting surges in new cases and new deaths in the state.

“If we keep trying to return to the way things used to be before COVID-19 too soon, we delay our actual return to that old normal,” Bullock said. “Pandemics don’t go away on their own, and they don’t spread on their own either. It is our actions as Montanans that have brought our total case count to over 16,000 and nearly 200 deaths, it’s our actions as Montanans that have stressed our health care system.”

Bullock said in the past two weeks the number of weekly reported cases in Montana has doubled, from 1,249 per week to 2,451.

He said the last county in Montana without a case, Petroleum, just added its first this week as well.

Thirty-one percent of these new cases were from Yellowstone County and Flathead County, and community spread is quickly becoming common throughout the state, he said.

Bullock said congregate settings like nursing homes and prisons are still seeing significant outbreaks, and most recent cases stem from those settings or from large events where people did not take social distancing or mask-wearing seriously.

He said this surge continues to raise the possibility of overwhelming the health care system of Montana and putting frontline medical professionals at risk of infection, which would further strain the system, exacerbating outbreaks and raising the chances of business owners and workers getting sick.

Many public health organizations have been so busy contact tracing, Bullock said, that they haven’t had time to update their numbers completely. So, what the data shows may be an underestimation depending on the county.

This week, he said, 230 health care providers in Montana signed a letter that says, “The situation is more serious than it ever has been in our state. New case count and hospitalizations are hitting record highs nearly every day.”

The letter said regions in Montana are already being strained, and people must help to prevent further spread, which is the best way to prevent further death.

Following the public health guidelines, observing quarantine orders, staying home when sick, wearing masks, avoiding gatherings, all of these can help prevent spread, the letter said.

The letter also requested that people patronize those businesses that do prioritize people’s health.

Montana Communicable Disease Control and Prevention Bureau Chief Jim Murphy said 18 counties in the last week have seen a significant increase in cases, with some seeing their total case number double.

Murphy said an increase in hospitalizations in the next few weeks is very likely, along with an increase in deaths.

He said all the hospitals he’s been talking to are stressed, many are at capacity and several have needed to divert patients to other facilities.

State Medical Officer Gregory Holzman said larger hospitals are partnering to create a system to assist critical access facilities, a system that will tell them the best hospital to divert patients to based up-to-date hospital capacity data.

Holzman said despite these concerning times, hospitals are still open, and people who need them shouldn’t feel that they should skip it for the sake of the larger system.

He said a recent article published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 4 in 10 U.S. adults did not seek medical care at some point during the pandemic for fear that they would contribute to stressing the system. He said this was found to be especially common among handicapped people and people with underlying conditions.

“These are not people that should be waiting … if there is an emergent situation please, seek care without delay,” Holzman said.

He said despite the strain, local facilities are still available for Montanans, but if current trends continue that will change as fall goes on.

Bullock said, starting this morning, the state will be posting updates on hospital capacity every day. This will include a regional breakdown of hospital beds, ICU and ventilator capacity, as well as data on individual hospitals.

Murphy said that system should help hospitals get an idea of where to divert patients to, as there have been instances of patients being diverted to medical facilities that were already at capacity.

Despite this grim news, Bullock said, Montanans still have the potential to turn these trends around and local governments are starting to act.

He said places like Fort Belknap Indian Reservation are imposing restrictions and county leaders calling on their citizens to do better or restrictions would be put back in place to prevent further spread in places like Yellowstone County.

Bullock said if leaders in Flathead County aren’t discussing similar action, they are not helping their community as well as they could be.

He said city and county officials in places where community spread is happening should be holding press conferences of their own to keep people updated on their efforts to combat the disease.

Bullock said the state will provide resources and guidance to local governments, but, ultimately, enforcement is their responsibility.

“It cannot all be solved from Helena,” he said.

Unemployment trust fund

Bullock said he is using federal COVID-19 aid to help stave off high increases in unemployment insurance taxes.

He said more than 100,000 Montanans have received unemployment benefits since the start of the pandemic and, fortunately, the state has been able to provide them.

However, he said, since March the the state’s unemployment insurance trust fund has dipped from $365 million to $202 million at the end of September.

He said the trust is supported by a tax payed by Montana businesses and the tax rate is based on the current balance of the fund as well as its ratio to previous years.

Bullock said because of the recent dip after years of very low unemployment the tax rate would increase at least 85 percent.

Bullock said this statistical anomaly is obviously unreasonable for Montana businesses to pay, especially in a year where businesses have already been hurt by the pandemic.

To resolve the issue, Bullock said, $200 million in COVID-19 relief funds will be used to boost the fund to prevent the anomaly, and further bolster the fund itself amid the pandemic.

He said businesses may see rate schedules fluctuate slightly this year, but they won’t be nearly as dramatic as that 85 percent.

After the great recession, rates took nearly eight years to return to normal, he said, and the state is not going to let that happen here in Montana.

During the question section of the conference Bullock was asked about people in Montana who are hiding their illness and going to work because they feel they can’t miss a paycheck and if the current social safety net in Montana is sufficient.

“No, I don’t think it is to tell you the truth,” Bullock said.

He said people who are sick should be quarantined, but the social safety net desperately needs to be addressed, and the federal government is dropping the ball on that front.

“It would be good if the federal government, that being the president and Congress, would get its act together to pass another (relief) package,” he said.


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