The Covid-19 pandemic is surging across the nation. According to National Public Radio, last week alone one million new cases of COVID-19 were reported nationwide, averaging 1,000 deaths a day. There have been over 240,000 Covid-related deaths reported nationwide. The rate of increase in active cases is stressing hospitals everywhere in the country, many having already surpassed their bed capacity.
Montana is no exception.
The state’s health department reported on Monday that 48,027 have been infected with the coronavirus in Montana and at least 522 people have died.
According to Johns Hopkins University, the seven-day test positive rate in Montana last week was almost 30%, ranking it among the top ten countries in the world alongside Poland (45.56%), Switzerland (39.23%), and Italy (27.44%). Cases in the state have surged by 13 percent in the last three weeks, particularly in Yellowstone and Cascade counties. According to a University of Washington projection, at this pace the state is on track to reach 1,800 deaths by February if severe measures aren’t taken.
The situation in the state is bad enough that the U.S Department of Health and Human Services dispatched a team of nearly 30 doctors, nurses, paramedics, and other health-care workers to Billings for two weeks to help strained health-care systems. A state report, recently published in the Billings Gazette, showed that several hospitals, including in Helena and Butte, are at 90 percent capacity.
In a press conference last week, Governor Bullock said, “The alarm is ringing loud.” He said it took six months for Montana to reach 10,000 cases of COVID-19. It only took 25 days to diagnose another 10,000 and another 10,000 were added in only another 15 days. Then it only took 11 more days to add the next 10,000, bringing the number to 40,000 on November 8.
State Medical Officer Greg Holzman said, “We need a coordinated response.” He said the effort is being made and guidelines, including the use of masks, have been well publicized “but many people out there are not following them.” He said currently Montana can’t keep up with the growing rate of infection and schools are closing, local health officials can’t keep up with contact tracing, and the whole system is under stress. He said four hospitals in the state were already beyond capacity.
“We cannot sit around and wait for a vaccine,” said Holzman.
Stacey Anderson, Lead Epidemiologist for the Department of Health and Human Services, said that one in every 24 Montanans has been diagnosed with the disease. Last week alone over 7,300 new cases were reported in Montana, a 29% increase from the previous week. That’s over a thousand cases a day last week which is a record. Nationally, we are approaching 240,000 deaths.
Anderson said over 2000 Montanans have been hospitalized and more than 500 have died to date in the state. Eleven have died in Ravalli County.
Governor-elect Greg Gianforte has already announced his own COVID-19 task force to curtail the surge. “Montana faces a public health crisis and economic crisis as a result of COVID-19—which I trust the people of Montana to take seriously,” said Gianforte. “It remains my top priority to work together to protect the most vulnerable among us, while also safely and fully opening back up our economy.” Ravalli County Commissioner Greg Chilcott has been appointed to the Governor-elect’s task force.
Ravalli County COVID-19 cases are also surging. The daily count of new cases of COVID-19, which had slowly crept upward through the month of September, launched into a much steeper rise in October and in the first couple of weeks of November the rise has gotten even steeper. [see graphs]. The Covid-related death count is also on the rise. From July to the middle of October, only three Covid related deaths had been reported. Since then another eight have been reported, bringing the total deaths in the county to 11.
Last week, in a letter to the community, seven Bitterroot Emergency Medicine Physicians at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital, including Bret Pearce, DO Clint Adkins, DO, Kevin Gurney, DO, Ben Waters, MD, Bristol Schmitz, MD, Sam Urso, DO, and Frank McHugh, MD, wrote an open letter to the community about the situation.
“This is a real threat, and it is getting worse daily- there is no exaggeration in saying that. As of today, there have been a total of 660 cases of COVID in Ravalli County. Over half of these are active cases, which means that the number of total infections has doubled in the last three weeks. If this trend continues, our local healthcare resources will quickly become overwhelmed; indeed, this is already starting to occur. We are on the brink of disaster,” wrote the doctors.
“As the number of patients ill with COVID surges, local hospitals are approaching – and with increasing frequency reaching – their bed capacities. This means that our ability to safely care for patients is becoming compromised. We have treated patients with life-threatening illnesses such as heart attacks that we can’t appropriately transfer because of the overcapacity of ALL hospitals in our region. There have been situations when we are forced to transfer critically ill patients out of state. These aren’t just COVID patients; with hospitals reaching critical capacity, the ability to care appropriately for any critically ill patient is threatened. We don’t have the bed capacity, and neither do any of our regional hospitals,” they wrote.
The doctors advise following all the protocols for tamping down the spread by social distancing and masking and other measures ending with a plea:
“As emergency physicians, but also as members of your community, as your neighbors and friends, we are pleading for your help. We cannot do this without you. We believe the quickest path to normalcy – and the one with fewest casualties – is to take this threat seriously today. The decisions you make matter – they matter right now, and they will have an impact on our foreseeable future. Thank you for caring for one another, and for making this community such a fine place to work and live.”
Officials in Hamilton and Stevensville have expressed great frustration at not getting pertinent information related to the pandemic. Stevensville Mayor Brandon Dewey has complained for months that county health officials will not share Covid statistics with the Town of Stevensville. Dewey claims it is essential for the Town to know what is happening in its community in order to respond and plan for the situation. He said the county officials are not responding and refuse to share any numbers with the Town.
Hamilton Mayor Dominic Farrenkopf and other city councilors all expressed frustration after attending a meeting of the Ravalli County Health Board and not getting any answers about the Board’s plans for dealing with the pandemic.
Farrenkopf complained that the format of the meeting was not appropriate for any dialogue. The Board of Health was taking public comment, but not engaging in any dialogue so there was no opportunity to get any questions answered or participate in any discussion. He thought some alternative venue might be more productive.
Councilor Jenny West said all the council really wanted was to hear what the Board of Health might be planning if the local hospital is stretched beyond its means. The question remains unanswered.