County mask requirement, event size restrictions lifted; variant strains confirmed in Montana

Cascade County’s case rate for the week ending March 17 is 9.6 per 100,000.

That means the mask requirement and event capacity restrictions are now lifted.

In February, the county health board issued a local health order that included a mask requirement and limited events to 75 percent of venue capacity, without additional approval from the Cascade County City-County Health Department.

The health order put those restrictions in place until the county reached a case rate, which is the average daily rate of new cases for the week, of 10 or less per 100,000 for two consecutive weeks.

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The case rate for the week ending March 10 was 8.25 per 100,000.

The health board has no meetings scheduled until it’s regular monthly meeting on April 7.

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The county’s case rate was 15 per 100,000 for the week ending March 3, it had been 8 per 100,000 the previous week. Since the county didn’t meet the rate requirement from the Feb. 17 order by the City-County Board of Health, the two week clock started again on March 3.

Local businesses and entities are still able to require masks in their facilities.

Great Falls Public Schools has its own mask policy that was approved by the school board in August.

Cascade County meets case rate requirement for one week, one week to go

Superintendent Tom Moore told The Electric that at this point there are no changes to the GFPS COVID-19 protocols.

“Especially important to stay the course at least until the staff and faculty can be vaccinated. To date cabinet, board, nursing team and teacher leadership in favor of keeping masking protocols in place,” Moore said in an email to The Electric.

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The Great Falls Public Library also has its own mask policy, which has been in place since July, before the state mandate went into effect. Staff is presenting their plan to the board during the March 23 board meeting for lifting COVID restrictions.

“While event size limits and the mask mandate are no longer in effect, it is critically important that our community members remember what got us to this point: social distancing, wearing face coverings, limiting capacity, and other common-sense practices like frequent hand-washing and staying home when sick. These best practices have resulted in our daily case rate dropping to the current level, and CCHD still recommends that these practices be implemented,” according to a CCHD release.

CCHD and the health board are continuing the monitor the COVID-19 situation in Cascade County.

One year ago today, the county health board met but decided not to shut down local businesses.

Two days later on March 19, 2020, the county health officer issued an order closing all bars, coffee bars, breweries and distillery tasting rooms, casinos, restaurants, bowling alleys, gyms, movies theaters and other commercial businesses in which people assemble for recreation with the exception of drive-through, delivery and pick-up services within Cascade County beginning 6 a.m. March 20 through 8 a.m. March 27 pending further notification.

That same day, the City of Great Falls declared a state of emergency for COVID-19 and Cascade County declared an emergency the following day.

On March 20, 2020, then Gov. Steve Bullock issued a directive to close dine-in food service and alcoholic beverage businesses and other activities that pose enhanced health risks, beginning 8 p.m. March 20 through 11:59 p.m. March 27.

The state and local emergency declarations remain in effect.

On March 17, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services announced that there are 19 total confirmed cases of COVID-19 virus variant strains in the state.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notified DPHHS on March 16 and March 17 of 11 additional variant cases that match two California variant strains and a New York variant strain, according to a DPHHS release.

“These cases involve specimens of Montana residents that were submitted for testing dating back from January to early March 2021. These 11 cases are from Beaverhead, Cascade, Glacier, Hill, Jefferson, Madison, Phillips, Roosevelt, Silver Bow, and Valley. When these samples were submitted for testing, the California strains and New York strain had not yet been classified by CDC,” according to the DPHHS release. “These 11 cases are in addition to eight U.K. variant cases confirmed in Gallatin County residents. Three of the Gallatin cases were confirmed late yesterday (March 16) as well.”

The CDC has three separate classifications of COVID variants and strains identified in Montana are consistent with strains identified across the U.S., according to DPHHS.

The three classifications are labeled as followed: variant of interest, variant of concern and variant of high consequence. There are no variants that rise to the level of high consequence in the U.S. currently, according to DPHHS.

“Montana continues to submit both random and suspect COVID-19 samples to the CDC for testing,” DPHHS Director Adam Meier said in a release. “As more surveillance and testing continues, it’s not surprising to find more confirmed variant cases in Montana and the U.S. The information that is learned through identifying more variants will be vital going forward.”

To date, nearly all states now have confirmed cases of at least one of the variant strains.

DPHHS has now posted a map online of confirmed variant strains in Montana.

Meier stressed the best thing Montanans can do to protect themselves from COVID-19, including the new variant strains, is to get vaccinated. He said it’s important to continue to follow CDC guidance around wearing a mask for both vaccinated and non-vaccinated individuals.

“Meier stated it’s important to remain vigilant to limit the spread of COVID-19 because that is how the virus replicates and creates new variants. Montanans are encouraged to continue to practice basic public health prevention methods to keep case numbers low in Montana including: wearing a mask to protect yourself and others, practicing social distancing by staying six feet apart, staying home if you are sick, covering your cough, washing your hands often, and avoiding large crowds,” according to the release.