Havre Daily News - News you can use

By Tim Leeds 

COVID-19 variant confirmed in Hill County

Person infected already recovered; Hill County mask mandate is signed


Last updated 3/18/2021 at 12:01pm

The same week that a new variant of COVID-19 has been confirmed to be in Hill County, the chair of the county Board of Health this morning signed a mandate issued by the board last month requiring people to wear masks in public places in the county.

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services issued a release late Wednesday afternoon saying Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified DPHHS Wednesday and Thursday that testing had found 11 more cases of variant strains of COVID-19 in Montana including a case with a strain first identified in California present in Hill County.

Hill County Health Officer Kim Larson said the Hill County case is no longer active and has recovered.

“We were just notified today of the result because when the sample was submitted the California strains were not yet classified by the CDC at that time,” Larson said Wednesday.

CDC says on its website that the variant, B.1.429, is a variant of concern. The variants in that category all have a mutation that was one of the first documented in the United States in the initial stages of the pandemic, after having initially circulated in Europe. Evidence exists that variants with this mutation spread more quickly than viruses without this mutation, CDC says.

“Identifying a variant locally is not completely shocking,” Larson said this morning. ‘We will continue to monitor the tests that are being sent to the CDC and watch for more variants in our area.”

Larson also made a comment echoing advice from DPPHS Director Adam Meier in a release announcing the CDC report, that the best way to avoid COVID-19 is is to get vaccinated and to continue to follow CDC guidance for wearing a mask for both vaccinated and non-vaccinated people.

“It is important for our community to stay vigilant in preventing the spread of COVID-19, so please continue to social distance, wear a cloth face covering when you are not able to social distance, avoid large crowds, wash your hands frequently and stay home when sick,” Larson said, adding, “We will share more information when we receive it.”

The DPHHS release said the 11 additional variant cases listed Tuesday and Wednesday match two California variant strains and a New York variant strain.

The cases involve specimens of Montana residents that were submitted for testing dating back from January to early March 2021. The 11 cases are from Beaverhead, Cascade, Glacier, Hill, Jefferson, Madison, Phillips, Roosevelt, Silver Bow, and Valley.

The 11 cases are in addition to eight UK-variant cases confirmed in Gallatin County residents.

Vaccination opening to all

The announcement comes as Montana is opening COVID-19 vaccinations to all residents 16 and older effective April 1.

The current phase includes people 60 and older, Native Americans and people of color who may be at elevated risk for COVID-19 complications, and people age 16-69 with high-risk medical conditions.

The only vaccine approved in the United States for 16- and 17-year-olds is the Pfizer vaccine, which is not available in Hill County. Hill County Health Department says it can make arrangements through partnered health departments in other counties and the families’ primary care providers to have the youths scheduled for vaccination with the Pfizer vaccine.

Local health departments and health care facilities have been scheduling clinics and making lists of eligible people to schedule vaccinations as well as lists for when eligibility is expanded, and local pharmacies including Western Drug and Gary & Leo’s Health Mart also have been receiving vaccine and doing vaccinations as supplies last.

Northern Montana Health Care and Hill County Health Department have put out a call for people to get on a list as quickly as possible to start setting vaccinations when it opens to all 16 and older April 1.

People can call Northern Montana Health Care at 262-1585 or Hill County Health Department at 400-2369 to get on the list.

People are asked to leave a message with their name, date of birth and contact information and someone will get back to them to schedule a vaccination, the notice said.

Montanans also are encouraged to visit http://covidvaccine.mt.gov to find information regarding vaccine availability and scheduling in their area.

Hill County mask man date still in effect

While numbers have dropped in Montana and the vaccine is rolling out, officials around the state, the country and the world have warned people that, especially with the variants arising, people need to continue to work to slow the spread or another surge could arise.

Countries in Europe are seeing a new surge and new restrictions are going into effect, including locking down some schools, businesses and regions and some complete lockdowns coming back.

In Montana, Gov. Greg Gianforte has rescinded most of the mandates put in place by former Gov. Steve Bullock, urging people to use personal responsibility instead.

Meier said in the DPPHS release that it’s important for people to remain vigilant to limit the spread of COVID-19 because that is how the virus replicates and creates new variants. Montanans are encouraged to continue to practice basic public health prevention methods to keep case numbers low in Montana including wearing a mask to protect themselves and others, practicing social distancing by staying six feet apart, staying home if they are sick, covering their cough, washing their hands often and avoiding large crowds.

A question on a local mask mandate was resolved this morning.

The Hill County Board of Health passed a mask mandate in February on a 3-1 vote, with board Chair Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson and board members Ericka McKeon-Hanson and Kristi Kline voting for it and board member Hill County Commissioner Diane McLean voting against it.

Board member Hill County Commissioner Jake Strissel abstained.

The board discussed in a special meeting Monday whether the mandate should be kept, but no vote was taken, with McKeon-Hanson pointing out that no public notice had been issued about the board taking a vote on rescinding it.

An issue that raised concerns about the mandate Monday was made moot this morning when Peterson signed the order.

Peterson said Monday after the meeting that he did not sign the February order he had voted to approve because he had concerns about enforcement.

Members of the Board of Health during the meeting Monday said they were not sure whether the order was in effect without his signature.

McKeon-Hanson said she had been trying to contact Hill County Attorney Karen Alley to find out, but had not yet heard from Alley.

Alley had not responded to queries from Havre Daily News about whether the mask mandate was in effect without the signature until this morning. This morning she said in an email that the Havre Daily’s queries had been forwarded to the Board of Health.

After Havre Daily received Alley’s response, Peterson called the paper to say he would be signing the order.


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