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Lewis and Clark County feeling economic and health care impacts of increased COIVD cases

Downtown Helena
State of Montana Data showing Lewis and Clark with more cases than Gallatin on Oct. 21
Posted at 6:35 PM, Oct 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-22 12:19:05-04

HELENA — The greater Helena area is seeing larger impacts to businesses, schools and the health care system as COVID cases continue to rise.

Lewis and Clark County has seen a significant rise in COVID cases in recent weeks. There were 457 active cases reported in Lewis and Clark County on Wednesday; higher than Gallatin County one of Montana’s early COVID hotspots.

Area businesses have been feeling the COVID burden, with profits still down from many local shops and restaurants.

“The restaurants are still suffering,” said Cathy Burwell, president and CEO of the Helena Chamber of Commerce. “They at best are doing 50 to 75 percent of normal. 50 percent is breaking even so that’s a tough go for them.”

Some area businesses have needed to close for a period of time after COVID exposure.

Congress and the President have yet to reach an agreement on any new federal support to states and businesses for COVID. Closing for any period of time can be a frightening concept for a business, especially if they’re operating on a narrow margin.

“My biggest fear is next year,” said Burwell. “They may have made it through this year with grants and COVID money, but what’s going to happen next year when there’s no more grants or PPP funding.”

Burwell strongly encourages people to shop local whenever possible to help businesses gain some stability.

COVID has led to many big money driving events for downtown Helena, like the Parade of Lights and Fall Art Walk ,to be greatly reduced in scope or canceled.

There’s also a lot of question about how the Legislative Session will ultimately play out, which is a huge economic driver for Helena

“If we don’t have a traditional session, we’re going to see a lot of businesses struggle for the first half of next year I believe,” noted Burwell.

St. Peter's Health

St. Peter’s Health is feeling more and more strain as COVID cases rise.

On Wednesday, the hospital saw 12 COVID hospitalizations. The ages of the patients ranged from in their 20s to over 65 years-old.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Shelly Harkins says at the current pace of new hospitalizations there is a real concern about exceeding capacity.

“This is certainly worse than we would have liked to see, and think it’s probably related to people just being done with all of the things that prevent COVID,” Dr. Harkins said. “That’s really unfortunate. We know that masking and distancing prevents it. It’s a relatively simple way to make sure that you and your loved ones don’t get it and that your health care system stays fully open.”

Nurses and Doctors are a finite resource, and right now St. Peter’s is seeing an increase in medical staff having to quarantine.

“We’re the largest private employer in the town. It’s inevitable that these active cases in Lewis and Clark County have our employees as family members, friends and contacts,” said Dr. Harkins. “We’re seeing that every day people that have to be quarantined and isolated for two weeks, and that makes it very challenging for us to keep going and keep everything open fully for this community.”

The current rate of hospitalization for someone infected with COVID is around 4.3 percent in Montana, or about 1 in 20.

As COVID cases rise, so does the risk of hospitalizations.

Dr. Harkins warns that unless people are far more diligent with wearing a mask, limiting social interactions as much as possible and washing hands there are going to be dire consequences.

“We know that light is at the end of the tunnel. We know this is not a forever thing. But we need to save as many lives as we can between now and then. Not just COVID lives, but heart attacks, strokes, complications from diabetes, kidney disease, liver disease. Those are all patients that need care right now too and the staffing constraints we have will affect them just as much,” said Dr. Harkins.