Harada: Going into holidays with surge still climbing

Doctor says people have to take action to slow spread


Last updated 11/20/2020 at 1:39pm

Dr. Kevin Harada

Northern Montana Health Care Chief of Medical Staff Dr. Kevin Harada said the COVID-19 situation in Hill County and Montana is poised to get worse after the holidays but the damage can be mitigated if enough people take the situation seriously.

Harada said the recent health order by Hill County Public Health Director and Health Officer Kim Larson has helped stem the tide of positive cases, but Montana and the county likely haven't seen things get as bad as they will, which he finds very worrying.

"This spike that started in September, we have not seen the tip," he said. " ... so we're going into the holiday season not even seeing the peak in our cases yet. So, I'm really concerned that these holidays will just add to the mountain that we're already building."

He said some people will inevitably see their families over the holidays, and it seems at this point a spike like the one seen after Halloween is inevitable, but if enough people take the situation seriously it may only be a small one.

"One person really can make a difference. ... Not always for the better, but I think if we can get more people to buy in, then we'll start to see our numbers go down."

Following policies

He said he thinks the policies of public health are in and of themselves effective, but more people need to follow them if the community is going to see things get better.

"I think our policies themselves are effective, but the amount that people are following them is difficult," he said.

Harada said the area still has an extremely high positivity rate and community members really need to comply with masking requirements in public or areas where social distancing is difficult and people who feel ill have to stay home, but there are still a lot of people who aren't doing this.

"We still have a lot of people in our community and in Montana that don't take COVID seriously," he said.

Harada said the county saw a huge problem early in this most recent surge with people still holding unsafe gatherings, which was a primary driver of the ensuing explosion of cases, and while that situation isn't as serious now, people need to rethink what they might consider safe.

"Overall, I think that situation has improved, but I think what a lot of people don't understand is that a lot of what we would consider harmless gathering, family gatherings, the virus can still be spread in them," he said.

Unsafe gatherings

Holding a gathering with only family will keep social circles small and cut down on close contacts, which is good, but the virus will spread between family members just as it will others so considering these event safe may be a stretch.

He also said a significant amount of people in the community are just not doing what needs to be done, often letting their personal politics get in the way of what shouldn't be a political issue.

"It seems like some the decisions people are making are not necessarily common sense," he said.

Harada also said the prevalence of both misinformation and disinformation is difficult for him and his fellow health care workers to see.

"It's one of the biggest things we battle during this pandemic," he said.

He said he fears that one of the difficulties to come will be dealing with a coordinated misinformation campaign against the upcoming COVID-19 vaccines, vaccines being a common subject of misinformation under normal circumstances.

Masks a key

Harada also talked about masks and their utility in slowing the spread of COVID-19, and urged people to stop wearing masks under their nose which he said is not nearly as effective as wearing them properly.

"You have to remember how the virus spreads, it spreads by getting on mucus membranes, by getting in your mouth, by getting in you're nose," he said. "The primary mode of transportation is by someone coughing or sneezing and you breathing in those droplets, so by covering both your nose and your mouth, if you're the one sneezing it decreases the amount of droplets that get in the air and if someone else is sneezing around you it can have some protective benefits."

He also said if someone is sitting down and only puts a mask on when someone else approaches they're still leaving an area around them full of these potentially infecting droplets, which is far less effective than just wearing the mask at all times.

Harada said people need to keep these things in mind when going out into the public.

High chance of meeting the virus

He said, assuming the vast majority of Hill County's positive cases are in Havre, statistically an average 3 percent chance exists that someone will encounter a person with COVID-19 every time they go out in public, and that number may be higher, given that there are still a lot of people choosing not to get tested, and it doesn't take into account many asymptomatic carriers who are still undetected.

However, he said, there are activities that are lower-risk and ones that are higher-risk.

Going to the grocery store with a mask on and social distancing, he said, is fairly low risk. But going out to a bar in the evening, a place where social distancing is difficult is a much higher-risk situation and that risk increases significantly when people aren't wearing masks.

Harada also said he sees people who are wearing masks not taking proper care of them.

"I see people all the time wearing mask that are obviously soiled and obviously not cleaned or wet, so you have to keep up with your mask hygiene as well," he said.

He said cloth masks should be washed every day, and surgical masks need to be changed regularly.

Hospital is OK for now

Harada said the situation at Northern Montana Hospital capacity-wise is fine for now and he's confident that they will not be in a position where they have to deny service to people because they have too many COVID-19 patients, but the state of things in Hill County and the rest of the state is very concerning.

"We're moving into flu season, I mean we're not even into cold season yet, and we're seeing our medical system be stressed like never before," he said.

Harada said Northern Montana Hospital has meetings with other hospitals about bed availability and many are far worse off that NMH with Billings in particular still running at over 100 percent capacity.

He said people in the medical community are under a tremendous amount or pressure amid this pandemic.

"It's extremely stressful," he said. "Not only are you having to work in a pandemic and worrying about catching the virus yourself, it's very stressful because shifts get longer, shifts have to be picked up, you have sick colleagues, you have more patients than most of the places have seen in a long time."

"We're asking a lot of our people," he added, " ... We're seeing more deaths every day so there is an emotional toll as we see people everyday who are struggling with this."

Those infected have pain, suffering and death

Harada said the deaths caused by COVID-19 are tragic and difficult to witness, but many who live still go through great pain regardless.

"The deaths don't even give you the full picture, "he said, "I mean we've never seen people remain in the hospital on this much oxygen, having this much trouble breathing, I mean this is truly something we have never seen before."

He said he wishes more people would listen when he and his fellow health care workers tell people what it's like to see these kind of things.

"Almost all of my physician colleagues and my nurse colleagues, our ask would be to spend a day in our shoes and to see what true suffering looks like, and see that this is truly something that is putting our nation our state, our hospitals in crisis," he said.

Despite the frustration and emotional toll it can take he still said he and his fellows are happy to be able to help.

"It's a privilege to serve our community, so even though things are difficult, we are still more than willing to serve people that need help," he said.

He thanked the majority of people in the community that are truly trying to help and hopes that more will join them.

"I think there are a lot of people out there who genuinely care," he said, "I mean we get a lot of support from the community... the majority of our community is really trying."

He said NMH and the medical community at large is preparing for what the holiday's will bring, and ultimately they must rely on the personal responsibility people in the community take.

A spike in cases will bring with it more death, he said.


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