HELENA — Lewis and Clark Public Health leaders had a clear message for the community Wednesday: Avoid large gatherings.
“We are social beings; we want to be together,” said Lewis and Clark County Health Officer Drenda Niemann. “It’s summertime in Montana; we want to do the things that we’ve always done – but this is not the time.”
As the number of COVID-19 cases in Montana continues to spike, Public Health held a news conference, urging people to limit any large group events. They were joined by representatives from St. Peter’s Health, the city of Helena, Lewis and Clark County and the local business community.
Public Health leaders say they’re not advising any gatherings of more than 50 people at this time, and that all events should be limited to an absolute maximum of 250 people. Anyone organizing an event with more than 50 people is supposed to work with Public Health on a plan for ensuring social distancing.
Niemann said the agency has received more than 30 event plans that they are currently reviewing. She said she’s concerned many of those plans don’t include enough measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“Plans that have been submitted that look really good on paper may not be able to be fully operationalized, which puts people at risk,” she said. “Some event organizers are completely disregarding public health advice.”
Leaders say large gatherings are inherently risky at this time – and that they can make it more difficult for the people trying to track the spread of the disease.
Eric Merchant, administrator of Lewis and Clark Public Health’s Disease Control and Prevention Division, said any infected person who attended a large event has a large pool of potential contacts. That makes it especially difficult for the contact tracing teams that follow up after a case is reported.
“Please, do not actively participate in limiting our ability to contain disease,” Merchant said.
Public Health also announced Wednesday that they have linked several recent cases in the Augusta area to a nearby wedding. Merchant said they’re concerned that cluster may continue to grow in the coming days.
“We really just sincerely hope that we don’t see a large outbreak associated with this event,” he said. “That’s what we’re talking about today: the whole idea that gatherings provide that opportunity for a ‘super-spreader’ type of environment.”
Public Health leaders urged people to wear cloth masks when they are out in public, and to continue physical distancing. They said they don’t want to implement additional mandates, but that they need the public to take this guidance seriously.
“We can do our part, and it’s so easy to do, because what we need to do is just wear our mask for each other,” said Helena Mayor Wilmot Collins.
“We believe in this community,” said Niemann. “We believe the people in this community will do the right thing, and the right thing is to follow the instructions that we’ve given thus far.”
You can find updated information on COVID-19 at the Lewis and Clark Public Health website.
Lewis and Clark Public Health is investigating a small cluster of COVID-19 cases in the Augusta area.
According to the health department, each of the cases has high number of contacts and there is the potential for more new cases related to this cluster.
At a news conference on Wednesday afternoon Eric Merchant, Lewis and Clark's disease control and prevention division administrator, said the Augusta cluster is directly tied to a large gathering.
Individuals identified through an investigation have been ordered to quarantine and isolate. High risk populations in the Augusta area are encouraged to stay home. Area residents are also advised to wear masks and practice proper social distancing.
Public health officials did say there was the potential for community spread.
This is a developing story and will be updated.