HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana is seeing a “remarkable increase” in COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks, the state’s medical officer said Tuesday, as officials urged residents to step up measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus and seasonal influenza.
The increase in cases is caused by schools reopening, Labor Day weekend gatherings and the continuing spread of the virus in congregate living settings, such as nursing homes and jails, said Stacey Anderson, state epidemiologist.
Montana’s COVID-19 level was stable at about 800 cases per week from when Gov. Steve Bullock issued a mask mandate for most counties in mid-July through early September, said Jim Murphy, head of the Communicable Disease Bureau within the state health department.
But last week showed a “remarkable increase in cases,” he said. “We actually had an increase of 490 cases last week over the week prior.” The 1,240 cases for the week ending Sept. 18 was an all-time high, he said.
Six counties were responsible for 75% of that increase - Deer Lodge, Rosebud, Flathead, Roosevelt, Missoula and Yellowstone, Murphy said.
The White House Coronavirus Task Force suggested Montana consider fines for violations of face mask mandates in areas with increasing cases. But Bullock said he will continue to stress personal responsibility with the goal of keeping schools and businesses open. Counties are allowed to implement additional restrictions.
“We need Montanans to be just as resilient as we were back in spring and early summer, now and in the coming future,” Bullock said, in following guidance such as social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands and disinfecting often-used surfaces.
“Ignoring public health best practices isn’t some sort of act of resistance,” Bullock said. “All it does is harm small businesses and put us further from our goal of minimizing the harm from this virus.”
Confirmed cases reported from Sept. 16-22 totaled 1,468, for an average of 209 per day over those seven days, according to state data. Montana had a total of 10,700 confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday. The case numbers are believed to be higher because not everyone has been tested and people can have COVID-19 without having symptoms.
Montana has reported 20 of its 163 deaths deaths since Sept. 18, eleven of them in Rosebud County and five in Yellowstone County officials 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.
Health officials reminded residents to get an influenza vaccine, to avoid getting both viruses at the same time and to reduce the number of people needing hospitalization in the coming months.
“We have medical units, like in Billings at the hospitals, that are stressed at what they’re seeing right now,” Murphy said. “Imagine how that’s going to be in a month when our first influenza cases start rolling in.”
Vice President Mike Pence urged governors on a task force phone call on Monday to use upcoming news conferences to build public confidence that a COVID-19 vaccine will be safe and effective. Bullock didn’t address a vaccine, but chief medical officer Greg Holzman did.
“I hope the vaccine is around the coroner. I hope it’s effective and safe, and if it meets all those requirements, I will be in line along with everybody else to get it,” Holzman said. “But to sit around and wait for that and allow more people to die, more people to suffer, more people to have huge medical bills when they spent long, long times in the ICU, is just not something that I’m willing to stand for - and I hope most people aren’t either.”
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