HELENA — While a vaccine for Covid-19 is on the horizon, Montana’s surge in new cases isn’t likely to abate any time soon – and could get worse, if Montanans don’t widely comply with social-distancing and other public-health guidelines, two of the state’s top infectious-disease experts told MTN News this week.
“Because it’s a respiratory disease and easily transferrable, we need people to be all working together,” said Greg Holzman, state medical officer for the Department of Public Health and Human Services. “You can’t have a large proportion deciding not to follow the guidance and expect the virus to go away.”
So far in November, Montana has been averaging more than 1,000 new Covid-19 cases a day, overwhelming hospitals and the overall health-care system in the state.
As of Thursday, more than 650 Montanans had died from the disease – just over 1 percent of those who’d contracted it.
“We’ve had 2,500 hospitalizations,” said Jim Murphy, chief of the state Bureau of Communicable Disease Control and Prevention. “That’s a lot of resources, that’s a lot of costs, that’s a lot of impact on the medical system. …if everybody in Montana got Covid and 1 percent was our fatality rate? That’s 10,000 Montanans that you could lose during that time. That’s a sobering number for some folks.”
Holzman said the first vaccine for Covid-19 could become available in December. However, any distribution schedule will be staggered, meaning vulnerable populations will get it first, such as frontline health-care workers and the elderly. Click here for details on the distribution plan.
Vaccines for the wider population won’t be available for at least several months, making it even more imperative for people to follow social-distancing guidelines.
“If we sat here and waited until everyone got vaccinated, we’re going to lose a lot more lives and have a lot more people suffering, so we want to move now, doing all the public-health interventions,” Holzman said.
“We’re trying to bridge a little bit longer, for a few months, until a safe and effective vaccine is available,” Murphy added. “But it’s not going to turn around super-quickly.”
Last week, Governor Steve Bullock tightened the public-health restrictions on bars, restaurants and other public-gathering spots and events and extended a mask-wearing mandate to all counties.
Restaurants and bars are now limited to 50 percent capacity and must close by 10 p.m. Public gatherings will be limited to 25 people, where social-distancing isn’t possible.
The governor also encouraged Montanans to avoid in-person gatherings of 15 or more people, saying private gatherings are a major source of the spread of Covid-19.
“We need all Montanans to recognize that there is widespread community transmission, and your risk of becoming infected with the virus increases the more you engage in gatherings of any kind,” Bullock said.
When asked if tighter restrictions are needed to slow the spread, Holzman said he doubted they would have any greater impact.
“The bottom line is, it’s really not as much the guidelines, but what the community will implement,” he said. “We can write all the guidelines we want, but if it’s not actually being done by a good proportion of the population, the virus creeps along.”
And it’s clear that many Montanans are not following guidelines, such as wearing masks, staying at home as much as possible, or avoiding gatherings, they said.
Murphy said the University of Washington’s Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation has estimated that face-mask use in Montana stands at about 60 percent, while it’s 75 percent to 80 percent in many states in the East. “We’re well below where we would want to be, in order to help contain the spread of this virus,” Murphy said.
Just last week, when newly-elected legislators met at the Capitol in Helena to choose leadership for the 2021 Legislature, nearly all Republican state lawmakers defied public-health recommendations to attend remotely if possible, and gathered in House and Senate chambers without masks, shaking hands and talking closely together.
Holzman and Murphy said county public-health offices are still doing what they can to test people who may have Covid-19, trace their contacts and ask them to self-quarantine – although it’s getting difficult, as so many cases arise.
Many Montana schools also are doing a relatively good job of isolating cases and sending those children home, Murphy said, and showing they can keep the virus at bay and the school open.
Yet Holzman said he sometimes feels like a broken record, warning people that Covid-19 is a potentially dangerous virus and that they need to take it seriously and follow social-distancing guidelines to slow it down.
If for no other reason, Montanans should follow the guidelines to give beleaguered health-care workers a break, as hospitals are reaching the breaking point, affecting their ability to deal with non-Covid diseases and accidents, he said.
To help ease the burden, the state contracted to bring in 200 or more traveling nurses and respiratory therapists to Montana, to work at major hospitals whose staff has been hit by the disease.
“Just go to any of the ERs and see how many people are coming in, that they’re having to constantly see,” Holzman said. “They’re not sick enough to actually end up in the hospital, but ER providers are seeing these patients, trying to take care of them, and give them the guidance of what to do, and tell them to come back if things get worse.”
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As of mid-day on Wednesday 25, there are 911 new COVID-19 cases reported across Montana, and the death toll has now reached 666 - an increase of 14 since Tuesday - according to data compiled over the past 24 hours by MTN News. Three of those deaths were in Cascade County, bringing the county death toll to 70.
There are currently 15,359 active cases in Montana, and there has been a cumulative total of 59,050 cases, MTN News reports. Of the total cases, 43,025 have recovered.
There are currently 462 people hospitalized, and the cumulative number of hospitalizations is 2,474. There were 5,055 completed tests within the last 24 hours, bringing the cumulative total to 627,851.