- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 29, 2020

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana officials announced three more deaths due to COVID-19 on Wednesday as Gov. Steve Bullock said the state or county health departments might have to increase restrictions in nine counties that he called virus hot spots.

Two Yellowstone County men in their 70s died in their homes, one on Tuesday and one Friday, and a Richland County woman in her 80s died Tuesday, the county health departments reported.

More than half of the state’s 55 deaths have happened since July 6.

The state reported 201 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 Wednesday, for a total of 3,676 since the pandemic began. The number of infections is thought to be much higher because many people have not been tested.

Just over 2,200 people in Montana are considered to have recovered from the virus while just over 1,400 are known to still be infected. Fifty-nine people in the state are hospitalized.

Bullock said most of the state’s deaths are of older people but that young people account for many confirmed COVID-19 cases.

In Gallatin County, he said 75 percent of confirmed cases are people under the age of 40. Bullock said this is likely because younger people meet in large groups more frequently than older people.

Bullock said nine of the state’s 56 counties are considered hot spots, and together account for 80% of confirmed cases for June and July. These counties are Flathead, Lake, Missoula, Lewis and Clark, Cascade, Madison, Gallatin, Yellowstone, and Big Horn.

The state is working with those counties to determine if more steps need to be taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Bullock said.

Montana’s mask requirement took effect on July 15 and it could be several weeks before its effect turns up in fewer positive tests, he said.

Montana is also rebuilding its COVID-19 testing capacity after Quest Diagnostics stopped running tests due to a backlog. Some people who participated in community testing, which is geared at people who don’t display virus symptoms, have waited for results for over two weeks, Bullock said.

The state has since contracted with a North Carolina lab that ran about 4,000 tests for Montana over the last week. A Montana State University lab which would providing additional testing capacity is still “working through the validation,” Bullock said.

The state lab in Helena provides quick turn-around of tests on individuals with symptoms, close contacts of those who are infected, outbreak investigations and residents of congregate care settings, Bullock said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.

In other coronavirus developments:

- The Montana Department of Commerce’s Office of Tourism and Business Development has launched a campaign to promote coronavirus-related safety precautions among travelers in the state. Officials announced the $5 million “Montana Aware” campaign aims to use fliers, posters and social media messages to inform the public about steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19, including wearing a mask and maintaining social distancing. The state’s mask mandate is in effect for 25 counties.

- The clerks who run Montana’s elections are asking the governor to allow counties the option to conduct the vote by mail, Lee Newspapers of Montana reported. In a letter to Bullock dated July 24, the Montana Association of Clerks & Recorders/Election Administrators and the Montana Association of Counties said that given the spread of coronavirus and the rapidly approaching Nov. 3 general election, they want to make a decision by Aug. 10.

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