Bullock discuss increase in COVID-19 cases, leaves additional restrictions up to local officials

Gov. Steve Bullock said during an Oct. 7 press conference that he’s concerned about the continued rise in COVID-19 cases statewide, but doesn’t intend to issue statewide restrictions and is instead leaving it to local health officers and elected officials to make those decisions based on local conditions.

Bullock’s health officials said Wednesday that the state has significant increase this week over the week prior and that a handful of counties accounted for a large chunk of the increase, including Cascade County.

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As of Oct. 7, according to the state map, Cascade County has a total 953 cases, of which 512 are active. On Sept. 30, the county’s total was 729.

Statewide, there are 16,063 cases, and of those, 5,352 are currently active, according to the state website. The state posted 733 new cases on Oct. 7, but said some of that was due to a backlog in reporting the numbers.

Bullock and the health officials said there’s concern about hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients, especially going into the fall months.

Beginning Oct. 8, Bullock said the state website will display daily snapshots on hospital resources, capacity and numbers of COVID patients hospitalized.

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As of Oct. 7, there are 19 Cascade County residents hospitalized, according to the Cascade County City-County Health Department.

On Oct. 8, CCHD announced the 8th COVID-19 related death in the county. The individual was a man in his 70s with underlying health conditions, according to CCHD.

On Sept. 30, Benefis Health System officials said that there were 37 people in their hospital with COVID and seven of them were in the ICU. The hospital officials said they were at 115 percent of capacity. Some of those patients are coming from other areas of the state that were over capacity, including Billings.

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As of Oct. 2, there were no COVID-19 patients hospitalized at Great Falls Clinic.

The clinic has the capacity to admit two COVID-19 patients currently in their two negative pressure rooms, according to hospital officials. If they have to admit more, they have plans in place to create a temporary COVID-19 unit, increasing their capacity to four.

Heidi LePard, the clinic’s infection prevention manager, said, “in talking about capacity for COVID patients, what is often forgotten is the fact that all hospitals continue to provide other services: surgery, cardiac events, trauma, stroke, etc. and that this care is not stopped or denied. Capacity also includes healthcare workers, not just beds…this is what has been an issue is some areas, new York city, for example, earlier in the pandemic.”

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Statewide, there have been 193 COVID-19 related deaths. Seven of those have been in Cascade County, according to CCHD.

As of Oct. 7, there were 18 active cases associated with Great Falls Public Schools, according to the district.

So far, Trisha Gardner, Cascade County health officer, has said no stricter restrictions are being implemented at this time.

Gardner told The Electric that the Cascade County Board of Health discussed COVID at their Oct. 7 meeting and “at this point, we are going to continue to really push the education piece to get people to take this more seriously. However, we are also discussing when and what additional measures may be taken at the county level as we see an increase in cases along with a remarkable decrease of compliance with prevention strategies. If we continue to see a spike in cases, and cases are overwhelming our hospitals and health systems there will be no choice but to go to stricter regulations again. It is to the benefit of every community member that businesses and individuals continue to take prevention seriously and do everything they can to curb the spread of this virus.”

Those prevention measures are the same CCHD has been recommending for months, Gardner said, and include:

  • Staying home when you are sick
  • Limiting interactions with others and thinking critically about the necessity of engaging in certain events/outings/gatherings
  • Social distancing wherever possible
  • Universal masking and proper mask wearing
  • Good sanitation practices and hand washing

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During his press conference, Bullock said that officials in Billings, where there are 1,137 active cases, are watching the numbers this month and if they don’t improve, will implement stricter rules for businesses and gatherings in November.

Bullock said that there are areas of the state where the virus is under control so it doesn’t make statewide restrictions but that in county’s where there’s significant transmission, “locally elected leaders have to stand up and say they can do more. Wherever there’s significant community transmission, that it can’t all be solved from Helena, there’s local responsibility here to do what they can to curb this virus.”

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Bullock said that there are statewide rules already in place, such as the mask directive, and if businesses aren’t following those rules, it’s up to local agencies to enforce.

In Missoula, the health department is beginning drop-in inspections of bars and restaurants during busy times to ensure compliance with COVID-19 guidelines.

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Gardner said that at this point, CCHD doesn’t have the staffing for that level of oversight, but the sanitarians are doing regular inspections and reporting back issues they encounter.

City Manager Greg Doyon said that the city is still operating under a declared emergency and has seen an increase in positive COVID-19 cases within its employee population and due to increased exposures have had more people quarantined recently than at the start of this pandemic.

“We’re monitoring this daily and will expect more impact in the coming months as the virus continues to spread. It appears that when tests are needed for emergency personnel, the city is able to test and receive the results fairly quickly,” Doyon said. “Internally, we have also take significant measures to prevent transmission amongst employees (additional disinfecting, barriers in offices, distancing at meetings or using virtual platforms, masks, etc.).”