HELENA — On Tuesday, state leaders urged Montanans to continue taking COVID-19 precautions for the benefit of medical workers.
Gov. Steve Bullock said during a news conference that the challenges of dealing with the coronavirus have been even greater for frontline workers. He then introduced Charlotte Skinner, an ER nurse from St. Peter’s Health in Helena, who talked about the burden of responding to the virus.
“All of our job stressors are just magnified, as we learn to do things like CPR in head-to-toe PPE, or we learn new methods of putting patients on ventilators while the doctor’s hands are inside a plastic box, or as we have to explain to yet another tearful family member that, no, you can’t visit right now, but we’ll hold the phone up for a FaceTime call,” Skinner said.
Skinner called on all Montanans to come together across political divides to follow public health guidelines.
“I’m asking you today to stop segregating yourselves into maskers and anti-maskers, and to stand with us on the common ground of science and evidence, which is clearly telling us that masking works,” she said.
Bullock again said Tuesday that he did not want to implement new statewide COVID restrictions, but he called on everyone to abide by the guidance that is already in place.
“It’s not the Montana way that the businesses that are doing things right have to close their doors because of the bad actors who aren’t taking the necessary steps to minimize the virus spread,” he said. “The Montana way is slowing the virus spread.”
Bullock also provided more information Tuesday about the state’s draft plan for distributing a COVID-19 vaccine – once it is approved and available.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services has submitted its vaccination plan to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CDC is expected to provide input on the plan next week.
State leaders say, in the first few months after a vaccine becomes available, they’ll focus on getting it to health care and other essential workers. After that, they will expand to those at increased risk of getting severe COVID-19 illness – like people with underlying medical conditions – and those who are greater risk of acquiring or transmitting the virus – including people in tribal communities and those living and working in congregate settings like jails, shelters and schools.
Bullock said there are still many unknowns about the eventual vaccine, from when it will appear to how the federal government will direct it to states. The state will put together a vaccine coordination team to help refine the draft plan. It will include representatives from hospitals, local health departments, tribes, long-term care facilities, businesses, schools and others.
“At the state level, we’ll be doing everything we possibly can to make sure that Montanans are prepared for when a safe and effective vaccine arrives to our state,” Bullock said.
Montana has seen high rates of positive COVID-19 tests in recent weeks. On Tuesday, the state reported 706 new cases and 2655 completed tests.
Health leaders said they have focused on making sure that people who have COVID-19 symptoms or potential contacts with those who have tested positive can get tested.
“I think one of the biggest points that is shown by this very high positivity rate is that there is a lot of disease out there,” said Dr. Greg Holzman, the state medical officer. “It gets back to the exact same things that we have been talking about.”
Bullock also announced that the state has given out more than $1 billion in unemployment benefits to more than 100,000 Montanans since the start of the pandemic. That is more than 20 times the benefits they distributed last year during the same period.