County Board of Health delays making decision on additional COVID-19 restrictions

The Cascade County City-County Board of Health met for more than two hours and took more than an hour of public comment, but took no action on more restrictions related to COVID-19 during a special Oct. 20 meeting.

The board is considering more stringent restrictions in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Cascade County as local healthcare providers are saying they are overwhelmed and over capacity.

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The board has not yet set a date and time for the next meeting to continue discussion of more stringent measures to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

The board is discussing options such as reducing event and gathering sizes, as well as limiting capacity in businesses, particularly bars and restaurants, which public health officials have said are high-risk environments for the spread of COVID-19.

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Currently, the public health order in effect limits indoor events to 250 and outdoor events to 500.

Dr. Ray Geyer, an infectious disease doctor at Great Falls Clinic and member of the Board of Health, said “that is unsafe” on the 250 indoor limit.

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Currently, under the governor’s phased opening plan, bars and restaurants may operate at 75 percent of capacity in the current Phase 2, but Geyer said, “that is probably not in our best interest” and recommended reducing it to 50 percent.

On Oct. 20, Cascade County added 42 new cases, bringing the county’s total to 1,508, up 200 from Friday. Of the total cases, 738 are active as of Oct. 20, according to the state map.

There have been 13 COVID-19 related deaths in Cascade County, according to CCHD.

As of Oct. 20, there were 27 active cases associated with Great Falls Public Schools and more than 400 people quarantined, according to Superintendent Tom Moore.

Trisha Gardner, county health officer, said that the county has added the bulk of new cases in the last six weeks. She said that on Sept. 2, the total number of cases for the county was 299.

As of Oct. 20, Gardner said that 68 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 and that Benefis was at 113 percent of capacity.

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She said that over the last 24 hours, six people with COVID had been waiting in the ER for a bed. She said that Benefis officials had told her the majority of those patients were from the region Benefis normally serves and that Benefis had to transport one patient elsewhere because it was over capacity.

“Our healthcare facilities are very overwhelmed at this moment, “Gardner said. “It’s not sustainable.”

According to the state’s Oct. 19 data on hospitalizations, Benefis had 70-90 percent of it’s total beds filled. In that data set, Benefis had 60 COVID-19 patients.

There were 152 non-COVID patients hospitalized, leaving 28 beds, according to the state data.

There were 16 COVID-19 patients in the ICU and four non-COVID, leaving one ICU bed available, according to the state data.

By Oct. 20, Gardner said there were 21 people in the ICU at Benefis and 19 of them were COVID-19 patients.

There were 14 COVID-19 patients on ventilators at Benefis and two non-COVID, leaving 10 ventilators available, according to Monday’s state data. The Great Falls Clinic had four COVID-19 patients; 14 non-COVID patients with 18 beds available and 10 ventilators available.

Last week, Gardner told The Electric that 21 county residents are hospitalized due to COVID-19. That number wasn’t updated during today’s health board meeting.

Gardner said that Great Falls Clinic doesn’t have the ICU capability that Benefis does and transfers patients to Benefis as needed.

Gardner said that as of last week, the local positivity rate was 21.3 percent of those tested and that the local rate of infection is now 40 per 100,000.

She said that nationally the rate was 16 per 100,000.

“We’re well over that and that is very concerning to me,” Gardner said.

Geyer said that this is his 30th year practicing medicine in Great Falls and that not in his time has the ICU been full with flu patients.

“This is very very different than the typical flu season,” Geyer said during the Oct. 20 health board meeting.

Cascade County officials also met Oct. 20 for preliminary discussions on housing people who test positive for COVID-19 but don’t have anywhere to go or risk infecting others if they return home.

Brad Call the county’s disaster and emergency services manager, said the county is in the process of applying for a grant through the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency for emergency shelter for high-risk, at-risk, exposed and COVID-19 positive individuals.

Call said the county has identified a potential facility but the details aren’t finalized so he said he wasn’t ready to name the location. He said the county still have to work out logistics such as the cost of providing housing, meals, security and sanitation.