COVID case rate increases in Cascade County; GFPS officials concerned about lack of staffing for schools due to COVID, limiting all extracurriculars to 50 person limit
The rate of positive COVID-19 cases by population in Cascade County has increased to 99 per 100,000.
“We’ve increased significantly,” Trisha Gardner, county health officer, said during the regular Nov. 4 Board of Health meeting.
As of Oct. 28 when the board was deciding on new restrictions to slow the spread of COVID-19, the rate was 64 per 100,000.
The rate is the number of new cases per 100,000 daily, based on a seven day average, Gardner said.
The increase has been sharp since September.
According to CCHD, the rates by week have been:
- Sept. 3-9: 14 per 100,000
- Sept. 10-16: 18 per 100,000
- Sept. 17-23: 25 per 100,000
- Sept. 24-30: 18 per 100,000
- Oct. 1-7: 39 per 100,000
- Oct. 8-14 40 per 100,000
- Oct. 15-21: 63 per 100,000
- Oct. 22-28: 64 per 100,000
- Oct. 29-Nov. 4: 99 per 100,000
The health board voted last week to implement stricter rules, including limiting event sizes to 50 people and limiting capacity for bars, restaurants and other businesses to 50 percent.
Those restrictions are in place until the county reaches a new case rate of 25 per 100,000 for four consecutive weeks.
Gardner said the positivity rate, meaning the number of positives among those who are tested, is currently 25.5 percent.
On Nov. 4, Cascade County added 98 new cases, bringing the total to 2,472. Of those, 1,526 cases are currently active, according to the state map.
On Nov. 5, the county lead the state in new cases with 176, bringing the total to 2,648. Of those, 1,702 are currently active.
“That does take a lot of manpower and time to be doing all of the contact tracing with all of those and monitoring,” Gardner said.
If someone tests positive and then tests positive again within three months, Gardner said those aren’t included in the new case numbers, but she said she isn’t aware of any reinfections in Cascade County.
As of Nov. 3, there were 51 COVID-19 patients at Benefis Health System, 154 non-COVID, leaving 35 available beds. Of those 12 COVID-19 patients and 9 non-COVID patients were in the ICU, leaving no available ICU beds, according to the state data. Eleven COVID-19 patients are on ventilators, leaving 15 available.
At Great Falls Clinic, there were six COVID-19 patients and 10 non-COVID-19 patients, leaving a total of 20 beds available. They have 10 vents available.
Gardner said that the bulk of COVID-19 patients hospitalized locally have been county residents, but that Benefis is a regional hospital and does serve the region and the major hospitals in the state have been coordinating to move patients as necessary depending on their capacity and resources.
During the Nov. 5 City Commission meeting, Dr. Bridget Brennan MD, emergency physician and chief medical officer for Benefis Medical Group, said that the situation is “threatening to overwhelm all of the healthcare facilities in state.”
She said Benefis has been near or over 100 percent capacity for the last several weeks.
Brennan said an entire floor has been dedicated to COVID patients and it can usually accommodate 20, but has had 27 patients on the floor for the last several weeks, as well as patients in other areas of the hospital. She said that the ICU has been consistently, and as of the morning of Nov. 4, there were 50 COVID-19 patients.
She said that 63 hospital employees had also tested positive for COVID-19.
“So you can imagine what impact that has on our staffing,” she said. “A lot of our patients recover and they go home…but a lot of them do not.”
She said there were 37 COVID-19 related deaths at Benefis in October alone.
“That number really starts to take a toll,” Brennan said, even on those who are used to seeing death.
“This is very far from over,” Brennan said, and with the normal flu season, “is going to make for a very long winter.”
Last week, the City-County Board of Health voted to implement stricter measures in an effort to curb the spread, including limiting event attendance to 50 people and reducing capacity in some businesses from 75 to 50 percent.
Commissioner Rick Tryon said that, “these decisions and COVID-19 and a 50 percent occupancy decision, these are decimating businesses and workers in our community.”
Brennan said that restrictions had been in place, but “no one was really paying attention. Unfortunately, when it starts to hit people in their livelihoods and in their businesses, it also tends to get their attention. We have to find someway to slow this down.”
Gardner said a group of people from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are coming to assist at the Cascade County City-County Health Department for up to 30 days.
“I’m very excited to have them there and the expertise that they’re going to be bringing,” Gardner said.
Gardner told The Electric that the CDC, through the state, offered assistance to local jurisdictions. The team will be here next week when they finish their work assisting in Billings. She said they’ll be looking at processes to streamline and improve related to COVID-19.
The CDC is sending a team of four that includes on epidemiologist and a regional manager, she said.
Gardner said CCHD is also working on continuity plans since Katie Brewer, the prevention services division manager, is leaving the agency later this month. The job vacancy is currently posted on the county website.
“That’s gonna be a big loss for the agency,” Gardner said.
During the Nov. 4 health board meeting, Tom Moore, Great Falls Public Schools superintendent, said that he’s getting pressure on closing schools and asked Gardner if they’re getting close to a tipping point that school closures are needed.
Gardner said that schools are essential and she’s comfortable with their current strategies in schools since the case numbers within the district are low.
“I am not ready to say that we need to close schools at this point,” Gardner said.
The district closed Whittier Elementary for a week due to the number of faculty and some students being quarantined, C.M. Russell High was closed Nov. 3 due to COVID and Great Falls High was closed earlier this fall for two days due to COVID.
As of Nov. 4, there were 81 active cases associated with the district.
Moore asked if cutting capacity to 50 percent in schools at any given time and moving to a different model would have any affect on slowing the spread.
Gardner said it could and would likely reduce the number of people needing to quarantine for each positive case since distancing would be more easily achieved.
Moore said there are concerns about staffing with so many teachers in quarantine and the lack of substitutes to cover those absences.
“We’re getting to that tipping point in several of our schools,” Moore said. “That’s concerning.”
The district already limited attendance for music, theater and other extracurricular activities to the 50 person max as required under the new health order, and once the post-season volleyball tournaments are finished, he said athletics will also be following that limit though the district is exempt from the health order.
Albert Grobe, CCHD’s environmental health division manager, said that his team is exploring the use of virtual inspections to protect their sanitarians.
He said that since the state launched the website for citizens to lodge complaints regarding businesses not complying with COVID-19 related health orders that he’s received four spreadsheets of complaints.
Grobe said that 95-98 percent of those businesses are willing to work with CCHD and as long as they do, he’ll work with them.
“There’s just the small percentage that are basically telling me that you can’t tell me what to do and I’m not going to do it,” Grobe said.
Most complaints are related to masks, from lack of enforcement for customers or employees not wearing them.
Gardner told the board that so far this season, CCHD has provided 1,900 flu shots through community clinics and that as of no, there are no influenza cases reported in the county.