County health board meets Tuesday to discuss stricter rules; hospitals feeling strain from COVID-19; County Officials asking community to help curb spread

The Cascade County City-County Board of Health has scheduled a special meeting to discuss implementing stricter regulations to reduce the spread of COVID-19 locally.

County officials are not considering a shut down nor are they considering blanket school closures at this time, according to the Cascade County City-County Health Department.

Cascade County officials considering stricter COVID-19 regulations, Board of Health set to meet next week

Trisha Gardner, county health officer, told The Electric earlier this week that the options being considered included reducing gathering and event sizes as well as reducing business capacities.

The health board meeting is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. Oct. 20 via Zoom.

Members of the public are encouraged to send constructive feedback to

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“We will not be able to respond to every email because…our staff are swamped. But we will read your emails and present recurring themes to the board,” according to CCHD.

As of Oct. 16, there are 1,308 total cases in Cascade County, according to the state map. Of those, 538 are active. The county has added more than 200 new COVID-19 cases this week.

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On Oct. 16, officials from CCHD, Great Falls Public Schools, Malmstrom Air Force Base, Benefis Health System, Great Falls Clinic, Alluvion Health, the county and city held a press conference asking the public to help curb the spread of COVID-19 by wearing masks appropriately, distancing, staying home when sick and avoiding gathering in large groups.

Gardner said that more than 1,000 of the county’s cases came in the last six weeks and half of the county’s COVID-19 related deaths were in the last six weeks.

Also during the last six weeks, the number of cases increase from 16 per 100,000 people to 40 per 100,000, Gardner said.

She said CCHD has fielded thousands of complaints of people not wearing masks or improper mask usage at local businesses and getting daily reports of businesses not adhering to the Phase 2 rule of operating at 75 percent capacity.

Garder said that CCHD has followed up with more than 200 businesses regarding those complaints. Initially it’s an investigation that involves a phone call to discuss the issue. If noncompliance continues, Gardner said CCHD can issue an order of correction and has issued three orders of corrections. If problems continue, the matter can be referred to the county attorney for legal action.

Gardner said CCHD gets regular questions of people wanting to know what businesses have had COVID-19 positive cases. She said that with the current community spread, people should “assume it’s everywhere. It isn’t just one place that you need to avoid.”

The Great Falls Ski and Board Club has canceled their annual Ski and Board Swap scheduled for this weekend due to increased COVID-19 cases.

In a post on the GFPS website earlier this week, Superintendent Tom Moore wrote, “I am concerned about the increased spread of COVID-19 in our community over the past few weeks. We are committed to keeping our schools open for a variety of important reasons that focus on what is best for our students. As I monitor the situation and communicate with health officials, they are telling me that the schools are doing a good job of managing and maintaining the health and safety of staff and students. The majority of COVID+ cases in our schools are attributed to exposure before or after school and on weekends when students and staff often let down their guard when it comes to PPE and physical distancing. We urge you to hunker down over the weekend and protect those you love and our community as a whole.”

As of Oct. 15, there were 21 active cases associated with GFPS.

During the Friday press conference, Moore said that with those active cases, about 300 students and staff are currently quarantined. He said that so far, there have been 101 total confirmed COVID-19 cases associated with GFPS.

The goal, Moore said, is to keep schools open as long as it’s safe to do so and having many students and staff isolated or quarantine is a strain on students, educators and families.

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During an Oct. 15 press conference, Dr. Bridget Brennan MD, emergency physician and chief medical officer for Benefis Medical Group, said “we are experiencing a public health crisis. The number of cases is rising so quickly it is threatening to overwhelm the medical resources in the state.”

Brennan said that over the last few weeks, hospitals across the state have started reaching or have reached capacity.

She said Benefis began seeing an increase in hospitalizations from the Great Falls and surrounding region that it normally serves, but also in patients being transferred to Benefis from other areas of the state where ICUs were full.

During the Oct. 16 press conference, Brennan said, “we have more patients that we can handle. This is a very, very real situation.”

Officials from the large hospitals in the state have been meeting daily by phone to talk about their capacities, patient numbers and resources. They are all working together to coordinate care and move patients when a facility is overwhelmed, according to several hospital officials.

Brennan said they are monitoring numerous internal factors to try to manage bed availability for COVID-19 and other patients. She said they’re asking for the public’s help to slow the spread so that the hospital isn’t faced with large numbers of COVID-19 patients at the same time.

Kevin Langkiet, director for emergency services and critical care at Benefis, said that hospitals are required to have surge plans and “we have all implemented our surge plans” to varying degrees. “We’re maintaining and we’re doing our job, but we’re getting stressed and we need help,” which is mask wearing, washing hands and staying home, he said.

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As of Oct. 14, there were 53 COVID-19 patients hospitalized at Benefis, according to the state report. Of those, 14 were in the ICU and 12 were on ventilators. The same report said that six other patients were in the ICU leaving one bed available. There was one other patient on a ventilator, leaving 13 available.

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Brennan said healthcare workers are also being impacted by the virus by either contracting it or being exposed. When they’re quarantined or isolated, that’s another strain on healthcare resources, she said.

Brennan said that if the community doesn’t get a handle on the COVID-19 spread going into flu season it can cause longer waiting times, limited resources, fewer beds at the hospitals, all of which will trickle down to the smaller hospitals.

“If we get overwhelmed, it’s going to gridlock the entire system,” Brennan said.

Alluvion Health is still providing drive-through COVID-19 testing to anyone who wants a test, including those who are asymptomatic, symptomatic, high risk and direct contacts.

The drive through is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday at Montana Expo Park, use the fairgrounds entrance on 6th Street Northwest.

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Trista Besich, Alluvion director, told The Electric that they’re seeing about 400 people daily through the drive-through and have been for several weeks. Besich said the positivity rate of tests through the drive-through has increased.

She said that about half of them are self-identifying as direct contacts. Many of those coming through are healthcare workers, students and people whose jobs require them to interact with the public frequently. There’s typically a jump in visits whenever a positive case is confirmed at a daycare, business or other place where others are concerned they may have been exposed, she said.