Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said Monday he will increase restrictions on businesses, churches and group gatherings at the end of October if COVID-19 infection rates continue to rise countywide.
Felton said in a news conference that health officials are monitoring one key metric: the daily rate of infections per 100,000 residents.
Restrictions will increase if one of two things happens: the rate of infections in the last week of October rises above 40- which equals 452 total for the week- or if the rate in any week of October rises above 50, or a total of 565, according to Felton.
If either of those scenarios occur, Felton outlined the new restrictions:
- Group gatherings will be restricted to less than 25 people, which would not apply to schools, which have their own guidelines.
- Restaurants, bars and casinos and places or worship will be capped at 25 percent capacity
- Bars must close at 10 p.m.
Montana moved into phase two of its reopening plan on June 1, where it remains today. According to Gov. Steve Bullock’s directive, however, health officers in individual counties can impose stricter regulations to tamp down COVID outbreaks in their communities.
The proposed new restrictions would be stricter than phase one of the reopening, when capacities were limited to 50 percent for bars, restaurants, casinos and churches.
Felton did offer some good news: while September was a bad month, the rate of infections never rose about the threshold of 40 per day in any given week.
In the past three weeks, the average daily infection rates were 31, 32 and 36 new cases, respectively, he said.
Nevertheless, Felton said any rate above 25 new cases per day is worrisome. If trends grow worse, hospitals in Billings, which serve the larger south-central Montana region, risk becoming overwhelmed.
In addition, rising case numbers have created delays in contact tracing. Felton said contact tracing has been prioritized in schools, where certain school personnel have been "deputized" to help determine contacts of infected students and staff members.
As of last week, 35 schools in Yellowstone County had at least one COVID-19 case, and health officials have identified outbreaks in several schools, Felton said.
“To keep kids learning in the classroom, we must minimize the number of infections," he said.
RiverStone Health provided some sobering statistics to illustrate how infections increased last month in Yellowstone County.
- During September, 1,336 Yellowstone County residents were infected with COVID-19.
- In September, an average of 63 people were hospitalized in Yellowstone County hospitals with COVID-19. Slightly less than half were Yellowstone County residents. On average, 16 people were in intensive care units and 11 people were on ventilators.
- One day last week, an all-time high of 90 people were hospitalized with COVID-19. On a different day last week, an all-time high of 19 people were on ventilators.
- As of Monday, 96 people with COVID-19 are hospitalized in Yellowstone County; 28 are in the intensive care units and 19 are on ventilators. Forty-three are residents of Yellowstone County.
- In September, 22 Yellowstone County residents died of COVID-19 related illness, compared with 18 residents in August.
- As of Monday, Yellowstone County has 1,164 people actively infected with COVID-19. Oct. 2 marked the first time we had more than 1,000 active COVID-19 infections.
- A total of 3,645 Yellowstone County residents have been infected since the pandemic arrived in March.
- In September, we completed 1,042 case investigations. As of this morning, we have 77 cases that have yet to be assigned due to the high caseload and limited staff. With this high volume of cases, it is taking about 72 hours to make the first phone call after we receive notice of a positive test result.
“We must reverse this trend of increasing disease,” Felton said at the news conference.
In addition, contact tracers in Yellowstone County reported:
- 78% of people who tested positive have agreed to complete the case investigation.
- Of those who agreed to investigation, 92% had symptoms of COVID-19.
- 22% became infected through a known household contact.
- 31% became infected through a known non-household contact.
- 47% could not identify how they became infected.
With Halloween, Felton said he recommended not doing any group celebrations. That includes trick-or-treating, haunted houses or costume parties.
He also recommended other practices to slow the spread of the virus: frequent hand washing, wearing a face mask while out in public and maintaining six feet from people outside your household as much as possible.
He added that Halloween is not “canceled,” and he recommended alternative activities, such as hiding treats at home for children, or showing off costumes on Zoom or other online events.
RiverStone Health will continue conducting free, drive-through COVID testing at the Shrine parking lot through Oct. 8.
Testing will be closed the next day, Oct. 9, then reopen Monday, Oct 12 in an indoor, all-weather facility at 2173 Overland Ave. Hours will be 8:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Watch Felton's full news conference below: