HELENA — There were 320 Montanans that died from COVID-19 in the month of November according to data compiled by MTN News, with a cumulative total of 717 deaths as of December 1st.
The first COVID death in Montana was reported on March 26; at the time there were 90 confirmed COVID cases in the state. Montana began to see exponential growth in cases and deaths towards the end of the summer.
"The pandemic has certainly picked up steam, what we’re calling nationwide the 'third wave' and there is a high prevalence of COVID-19 in communities across the state," said State of Montana epidemiologist Laura Williamson. "As we see more cases we'll have a couple-week lag and then see more hospitalizations, and then a week or two after that we'll see more deaths."
On July 1 the state had reported 22 deaths with 1,016 total COVID cases. By August the number of deaths had nearly tripled to 61 and the number of confirmed cases had quadrupled to 4,081. As of September 1st, there had been 106 deaths and 7,509 positive cases. By the beginning of October, 181 deaths were reported with total cases reaching 13,500. A month later on November 1st, 397 COVID deaths were reported, with 33,062 confirmed cases in Montana.
As of the morning of December 1st, 717 Montanans have been lost to COVID, and a total of 62,732 cases have been reported in the state.
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Officials in Montana have been following CDC guidelines for attributing a death to COVID-19. The most common reason for COVID being listed as a contributing factor to death is life- threatening conditions such as pneumonia or acute respiratory distress syndrome resulting from the COVID infection. According to guidelines if the death was not directly tied to the COVID-19 infection, such as a traffic fatality, the death should not be attributed to COVID.
"We're asking coroners or physicians who determined the cause of deaths to document the causal chain that led to that person's ultimate death," said Williamson. "So with COVID-19 what we see recorded is ultimately an individual might die of pneumonia, but it's COVID-19 induced pneumonia."
Preliminary data from the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services (DPHHS) show that the majority of COVID deaths are happening in people over the age of 50 years old.
Around 14.7 percent of COVID deaths were people ages 50-64; about 23.4 percent were in people 64-74 years old; 27.8 percent were people ages 75-84; and 29.4 percent were in ages over 85 years old. An estimated 4.8 percent of COVID deaths in Montana were reported in individuals 30-49 years old. One in six Montanans is over the age of 65.
CONTEXT: Not every person who tests positive actually becomes ill or exhibits symptoms. Many do not; of those who do become sick, some experience mild symptoms and do not require hospitalization. Others experience more severe symptoms, and some do require hospitalization. Every person who tests positive for COVID, however, has the potential to spread the virus to other people, including family members and friends, which is why public health officials continue to encourage everyone to wear a mask and maintain at least the recommended six feet of "social distance" when in public. The CDC released data in late August which emphasizes that people with contributing or chronic medical conditions are at much greater risk of dying from COVID-19. Click here to read more.
Around 57 percent of Montana's total deaths have been men, 43 percent have been women.
Native American populations have been the hardest hit demographic. Although they make up around 6.5 percent of the population of Montana, they account for 29.4 percent of total deaths. "We're seeing a tremendous death rate increase among American Indian residents in Montana compared to white residents in Montana," said Williamson.
Williamson says that in about two-thirds of Montana's COVID deaths, the individual had a chronic medical condition such as diabetes, heart disease, or asthma. However, many of the COVID risk factors are common conditions in the state. "We estimate that about 57 percent of Montana adults have one or more chronic condition that they are actively managing," said Williamson. An estimated 1 in 10 Montanans are living with diabetes and 1 in 4 are considered obese. Smoking and cancer will also increase the chance of a serious reaction to COVID.
DPHHS warns that at this rate, COVID will be at least the fourth-leading cause of death in the state for the year. Right now the mortality rate of a confirmed COVID cases in Montana is around 1.1 percent. However, 1.1 percent of the population of Montana is more than 11,000 people - greater than the populations of, for example, Havre or Anaconda.
How does the number of COVID deaths compare to crashes and suicide? According to data from the Montana Department of Transportation, there have been 186 traffic fatalities on Montana roads in 2020 so far. Preliminary data from DPHHS indicates 231 Montanans died by suicide from January 1st to October 10 in 2020, and Montana averaged 280 suicide deaths a year over the last five years.
Montana’s hospitals have been feeling the strain of COVID for months, with around 1 in 20 individuals confirmed to have the virus requiring some form of hospitalization. Increased spread in the community have also led to more healthcare workers contracting the virus, and needing to quarantine due to exposure.
A big concern by many hospitals in the state is there will be another spike of COVID cases in the weeks following Thanksgiving, and those medical facilities won’t have enough resources to meet the increased need from patients.
Wearing a mask, following social distancing guidelines, and limiting gatherings to only those that live in your household are the only tools the state has right now to combat COVID-19.
A vaccine is still months away from being distributed to the general population, and Governor Steve Bullock has said he would not lock down the state again without financial support from the federal level.