HELENA — In Lewis and Clark County, health leaders say this continues to be a difficult time in their COVID-19 response.
“We were already in the middle of a surge when Thanksgiving hit, which means that we may not see a significant spike because of Thanksgiving – because we were already at a pretty high number of cases,” said county health officer Drenda Niemann.
On Friday, Lewis and Clark Public Health announced that it was not reducing the recommended 14 days of quarantine for people considered close contacts to someone with COVID-19. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced this month that public health authorities could shorten quarantine periods to 10 days or even 7 days if they had sufficient testing available. However, LCPH said, because of the number of new cases in the county, they couldn’t provide enough contact tracing if people left quarantine earlier.
Niemann said LCPH is still watching to see what effect Thanksgiving gatherings may have on cases in the county. It has now been two weeks since the holiday, the expected incubation period of the coronavirus. However, health leaders say the full impact may not be known immediately.
LCPH says it is clear that more local COVID cases are now occurring among people who have attended gatherings. During two weeks in November, the agency reports 36% of those who tested positive had been to one or more gatherings – up from 14% during a period in October.
Public Health is also concerned about the number of deaths linked to COVID-19. They have reported a total of 24 deaths in Lewis and Clark County so far – 14 of them coming in November and the first week of December.
Niemann said several of the deaths have been linked to assisted living facilities. She said, since the end of October, they have seen a growing number of cases among staff and residents at those facilities.
“We’re working with them carefully, we’re helping them to mitigate impact, we’re helping them to manage the outbreaks, but unfortunately we will continue to see serious illness, hospitalizations and deaths, because these are our most vulnerable,” she said.
Niemann said she does see some positive signs. She believes the state’s directives restricting large events and limiting capacity and operating hours at restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos may be helping.
Now, the City-County Board of Health is considering whether to implement that type of regulation on the local level. They would largely mirror the orders the state currently has in place.
Niemann said having local regulations would make enforcement easier. She also said leaders believe these types of restrictions will still be important into 2021. When Gov.-elect Greg Gianforte takes over in January, he may make changes to the directives current Gov. Steve Bullock put in place.
“We’re in anticipation of a change,” said Niemann. “We don’t know what that change is going to look like, but their desire is to ensure that here in Lewis and Clark County, we have public health mitigation strategies solidly in place as we move through the transition.”
The draft rules, available here, would include mask requirements, limits on event size and regulations on capacity and operating hours. In addition to bars and restaurants, the capacity and hours limits would also be applied to gyms. Niemann said leaders felt gyms should be included because people exercising are allowed to remove their masks, so the risk could be higher.
The regulations would also lay out “triggering criteria” that would be used to determine when the rules could be loosened or tightened. The criteria would include case information, health care system capacity, availability of testing, public health staffing, COVID screening and community complaints.
The board is set to consider the draft regulations at its meeting Thursday, Dec. 17. If you want to make a comment on the proposal, you can find more information on the Board of Health website. Public comments will be accepted until 5 p.m., Dec. 16.
According to state data, Lewis and Clark County reported 159 new COVID-19 cases on Friday, after only 43 on Wednesday and 31 on Thursday. However, Niemann said that was misleading, because the results from one of the labs processing their tests had not been going into the system the last few days.