'We just need to be careful': Seasonal COVID cases increase across Montana

Posted at 9:09 AM, Oct 18, 2023

BILLINGS — Cough, headache, sneezing—the latest variant of COVID-19 has familiar symptoms, but is having less severe impacts on people it infects.

John Felton, the Yellowstone County health officer, says people testing positive now are seeing milder symptoms and a lessened chance of hospitalization.

"We've been having for the last probably six to eight weeks, somewhere between 10 and 20 hospital admissions a week," Felton said. "But for the most part, they're staying for just a couple days in the hospital. So very different from what we saw early on when we had 150 patients in our hospitals and 40 or 45 of those in the intensive care unit."

Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 99.9% of current COVID-19 cases in the United States are variants of the Omicron strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Omicron was first detected in November 2021 and quickly became the dominant strain of the virus worldwide. Nearly 25% of current positive cases are identified as the EG.5 variant of Omicron.

The dominance of Omicron and its more than 35 active variants shows a progression doctors hoped would happen: a taming of the virus into something humans can survive and manage.

"It's what you would expect to happen," Felton said. "If you think about a virus as a parasite, all a parasite wants to do is transmit and replicate. They're pretty simple things and so when parasites are too deadly and they kill their host, they can't transmit. So they tend to evolve to a more transmissible, less virulent or less illness-causing state."

But still the virus can be deadly. RiverStone Health has been tracking local cases and reports that as of Oct. 7, 111 Yellowstone County residents tested positive for COVID-19 at a healthcare facility, out of 733 positive cases statewide. These numbers do not include positive results people may be getting through home testing.

RiverStone Health reports that 28 Yellowstone County residents have died from COVID-19-related illness so far this year. Previous numbers released this week from RiverStone showed 22 Yellowstone County residents had died, but Felton said Tuesday that a recount shows 28 deaths.

Dr. Neil Ku, an infectious disease specialist at Billings Clinic, says there is still a lot to learn about the evolving virus, including on how easily it is currently spreading.

"In the past three years, we had a better idea of the variations and how contagious a variant was, because the results were required, they had to be reported," Dr. Ku said. "Now that reporting is not required for the most part and mostly voluntary, it's a little harder to tell because we don't really know how prevalent the disease is right now."

"We extrapolate the prevalence or at least what we sense is the prevalence based on a few factors like hospitalization and such. But again, it's kind of comparing apples to oranges because we saw significantly more hospitalization with Delta (variant) in the past."

Both RiverStone Health and Billings Clinic encourage everyone to receive the updated COVID-19 vaccine recommended by the CDC. Felton says a vaccination dramatically lessens symptoms of the virus, the duration of infection, and can help vulnerable populations avoid hospitalization.

Ku says currently Billings Clinic is waiting on its shipment of COVID-19 vaccines, as demand has created a backup for manufacturers.

"The roll-out of the updated COVID-19 vaccine hasn't been as smooth and that's been a big challenge, not just here, but also nationwide," Dr. Ku said. "We have not yet received our shipment, but I hope that doesn't discourage people to get vaccinated. Probably the best sources to find out vaccine availability information is just to go to that, put in your zip code and which vaccine you're looking for, and they'll give you a list."

RiverStone Health is offering vaccines for COVID-19, flu and RSV at its immunization clinic and in different community events.

Vaccines at the RiverStone Health Immunization Clinic, 123 S. 27th St., are by appointment and you can call 406.247.3382. RiverStone Health says no one will be denied vaccination because they cannot pay.

The next immunization event is in partnership with Carbon County Public Health to offer a walk-in flu and COVID-19 vaccination clinic from 3 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 25, at Laurel Middle School library. Vaccines will be available for everyone over six months of age. They ask to please use the main school entrance.

As always, health officials recommend washing your hands or using hand sanitizer frequently this fall and for anyone at high risk of a viral infection to consider wearing a N95 mask when indoors away from home.