By Tim Leeds 

COVID vaccinations urged as case numbers creep up

COVID back in the schools


Last updated 5/5/2021 at 12:03pm

With the numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the area again going up and the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations staying low, officials are urging people to take action.

"I am concerned that we are not getting more people vaccinated," Hill County Health Officer Kim Berg said. "We need to get more people protected to slow the number of cases in our community and across the state. I am nervous that we will begin to see a larger surge if we, as a community, do not continue to take this virus seriously and do our part to protect ourselves and those around us."

Officials have said that the number of people vaccinated is probably keeping the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths lower than it would be otherwise, but those numbers still are far too high.

People are urged to continue to take action to reduce the spread of COVID-19, wearing masks when around unvaccinated people, avoiding large gatherings, regularly washing their hands and cleaning and sanitizing surfaces.

But the only way to get back close to normal is for more people to get vaccinated, officials say.

Numbers going back up

Restrictions have been relaxed around the state with some of the first actions Gov. Greg Gianforte took when he assumed office were rescinding restrictions put in place by his predecessor and requirements in Hill County relaxed as well.

Numbers of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths had dropped significantly in the first part of this year, but numbers around the state are moving upward again.

April 1, Blaine, Chouteau, Hill and Liberty counties had no confirmed active cases of the disease.

By this morning, 36 confirmed cases were listed in the counties, with only Liberty County still reporting none active.

The county health departments reported Tuesday evening 23 active cases with one active hospitalization in Blaine County and 10 active cases with one active hospitalization in Hill County.

The state tracking map this morning reported three active cases in Chouteau County.

And the surge has slowed further relaxation of rules. Fort Belknap Indian Community, which went into lockdown mode last year and still has restrictions, announced Friday that planned moving to Phase 2 of its reopening plan would not be in the best interests of residents due to the surge and the reservation would remain in Phase 1 for at least another 30 days.

The tribal council adopted the Fort Belknap Incident Command recommendations including keeping a 10 p.m. curfew in effect, an alcohol ban continuing, requiring wearing masks and social distancing, and any people planning an event must submit a safety plan for approval.

If the number of cases increase significantly, the reservation may move back to a shutdown, the resolution says.

And Berg said the number of actual cases in the region may be higher, with the rate of testing down.

"I do believe that testing is low," she said. "It is around the state and country as well."

Vaccination rates down

And the rates of vaccination for COVID-19 are low as well, in this region and also around the country.

States and counties in the United States had started reducing the amount of vaccine they were requesting as the demand dropped, and the federal government just announced it is moving to shift doses from states with lower demand to regions with higher demand, rather than continuing to base allocations on population.

Hill County has stopped its weekly vaccination clinics and now is going to schedule people for shots the third Tuesday of each month, while other entities in Hill County are also offering vaccinations, as are health departments in Blaine, Chouteau and Liberty counties and on Rocky Boy's and Fort Belknap Indian reservations.

The vaccinations were in great demand as the vaccines were approved and distributed at the start of the year, but that has dropped significantly.

In Hill County, the state tracking map update this week showed Hill County with 5,865 of the 12,328 eligible having received shots, with 4,621 fully vaccinated.

That is up 227 people receiving shots from last week's update and up 366 for full vaccinations, leaving 6,463 eligible residents still needing a vaccination.

Blaine County is listed as having 1,940 of its 4,910 eligible residents fully vaccinated with a total of 2,499 having received any shot, while Chouteau County has 1,372 of its 4,545 eligible residents fully vaccinated with a total of 1,635 residents having received any shot.

Liberty County is listed as having 590 of its 1,917 eligible residents fully vaccinated with 626 having received at least one shot.

Officials hope numbers will go up as the eligible ages lowers, with U.S. Food and Drug Administration expected to approve the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for youths 12 and older and the White House developing plans to vaccinate them.

Local officials are urging people to get the vaccination as confirmed numbers of cases go back up.

Officials also are warning that as long as the virus continues to circulate, the chance increases that the virus will mutate into more dangerous variations.

More young people infected, variants part of surge

And much of the surge going on in Montana and the rest of the country is of variants like the B.1.1.7 variant that developed in Europe, variants first detected in South Africa and Brazil and in California and New York.

And the surge now is focused on people younger than the main populations in the earlier part of the pandemic.

Kaiser Health News reported that doctors are seeing a demographic shift with young and middle-aged adults making up more and more of the COVID-19 patients in hospitals rather than the elderly.

Part of that is because the vast majority of the 32 percent of U.S. residents who are vaccinated are older than 65, Kaiser Health News reports.

Especially with the variants spreading in the U.S., while younger people still are less likely to die from COVID-19, they can become seriously ill and can have long-term problems, the report adds. People with underlying conditions also are more likely to become seriously ill.

And the local numbers back up the shift to younger people.

In Hill County, recent confirmed cases included three who were age zero to 10, three teens, one in their 20s, one in their 30s, three in their 40s, one in their 50s and one in their 80s.

The Fort Belknap resolution adopting the Fort Belknap Incident Command recommendations to stay in Phase 1 of its reopening plan also said a large number of people affected in the latest surge are children who cannot be vaccinated as yet.

And the spread is back in Havre Public Schools. Superintendent Craig Mueller issued a release Monday afternoon saying three new cases associated with the schools were confirmed, with eight people quarantined. Contact tracing had been completed in one case and was ongoing in another Monday, with another case not requiring contact tracing, the release said.

"It is imperative that face coverings continue to be worn when social/physical distancing of at least three feet cannot be maintained, such as during passing times or in common areas," Mueller said in the release, adding "At least two individuals associated with the district did not have to be quarantined because they were fully vaccinated and are asymptomatic. Thank you for all of your diligence during this difficult time."

Vaccine availability

Many opportunities in the area exist for vaccinations, with all three approved vaccines available.

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only one approved for 16- and 17-year-olds and expected to be approved for youths 12 and up, requires two shots, as does the Moderna vaccine.

The Johnson & Johnson/Janssen vaccine only requires one shot.

The Rocky Boy Clinic, which has the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine approved in the U.S. for people 16 and older, is offering vaccinations to anyone Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, with people needing to call 406-395-1655 to schedule an appointment.

The clinic also is taking a mobile clinic to areas on Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation Tuesdays and Thursdays and is holding a drive-through clinic Friday, May 21, at the clinic parking lot starting at 11 a.m.

In Havre, Hill County Health Department is taking calls at 406-400-2415 to schedule appointments for the third Tuesdays of the month starting May 18 for Moderna vaccinations, and other locations also have vaccine available.

Bullhook Community Health Center is taking walk-in vaccinations with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at its pharmacy, and is taking calls at 406-395-4305 to schedule appointments for Moderna vaccinations.

Gary & Leo's Health Mart is taking walk-ins during pharmacy hours for Johnson & Johnson vaccinations, and Western Drug Pharmacy is taking Johnson & Johnson vaccination walk-ins for this week, and is taking calls at 406-265-9601 to schedule Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccinations after this week.

Walmart asks people to log into to schedule a vaccination.

Moderna and Johnson & Johnson/Janssen COVID-19 vaccines also are available at the Chouteau County Health Deparatment, 406-622-3771, and at Big Sandy Pharmacy, 406-622-5588. People need to call and get signed up at each facility in order to get a vaccine.

In Liberty County, people can call 406-759-5517 to schedule an appointment for a Johnson & Johnson or Moderna vaccination, and if enough people sign up, could get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for shots.

Blaine County Health Department is holding walk-in clinics Wednesday, May 12, and Thursday, May 20, with all three vaccine varieties, Moderna, Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson, from 3-7 p.m. at the Commercial Building at the Blaine County Fairgrounds in Chinook. People with questions can call 406-357-2345.

A post on the Fort Belknap Indian Community Facebook page listing two new cases confirmed on the reservation says COVID-19 vaccinations are available to the general public, 16 and older. People can call 406-353-3219 to schedule an appointment and walk-ins are welcome, the post says.


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