County COVID-19 rate up slightly; several variants, breakthrough cases identified

The COVID-19 case rate in Cascade County has risen to 20.5 per 100,000 for the last week.

Trisha Gardner, county health officer, told the Cascade County City-County Board of Health about the increase during their May 5 meeting.

For now, there are no changes in COVID related restrictions, but health officials are continuing to monitor the situation.

The county’s case rate had dropped to 10 per 100,000 or lower in March for two consecutive weeks, triggering the lifting of the county’s mask mandate and other COVID restrictions.

There were 117 new cases over the last week and there are currently 181 active cases.

She said that there has also been an increase of cases among those 20-40, while cases among other ages groups are trending downward.

Gardner told the board that so far, there have been 15 breakthrough COVID-19 cases. That means someone who is considered fully vaccinated contracted COVID. Fully vaccinated means someone who has received either two doses of Pfizer or Moderna, or the single dose of Johnson and Johnson and then two weeks have elapsed since their last shot.

Gardner said that the majority of those breakthrough cases have been people with underlying health conditions.

She said the Cascade County City-County Health Department is tracking each of those cases and is trying to get all of the breakthrough cases tested for variants.

So far in the county, there have been five cases identified of variants.

Three were the U.K. strain and of those, two were hospitalized and one died, Gardner said.

The others were one with the New York strain and one with a California strain. One was a variant of interest and the other a variant of concern, she said.

One of the cases with the U.K. variant was a breakthrough case, but the other four variant cases were in individuals who had not been fully vaccinated, according to CCHD.

As of May 3, there are 23,833 people fully vaccinated in Cascade County of an eligible population of about 64,000, she said. According to the state dashboard, 49,900 doses of the vaccine had been administered in the county.

The rate of people getting their first vaccine shot and not getting the second in the county is about 10 percent, Gardner said. There are a number of factors that affect that number, including people moving, traveling or getting their shots in different counties. 

“This is a little higher than I’d like to see,” Gardner said.

Statewide, the rate is about four percent, she said.

Gardner said CCHD is considering hosting walk-in vaccine clinics and some targeted clinics at larger employers, particularly to encourage younger residents to get vaccines.

As of May 4, there were 17 active cases within Great Falls Public Schools.

Benefis Health System is currently requiring employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine, with medical and religious exemption options, but is watching HB 702, which recently passed the Montana Legislature and has been sent to the governor for final approval. Whitney Bania, a Benefis spokeswoman, told The Electric that there may be updates from the organization later this week.