What's driving the spike in COVID-19 cases in Montana?

Posted at 2:48 PM, Sep 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-09-23 14:35:07-04

HELENA — Montana has seen a sizable increase in average daily COVID-19 cases since July, with more than 270 new cases reported on two of the last four days.

“From mid-July to early September, our weekly number of cases stabilized. Unfortunately that stability was at about 800 per week,” said Jim Murphy, Communicable Disease Control and Prevention bureau chief of the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services.

Social distancing and "masking up" has been a unified message by state and county officials for months, yet cases have continued to rise.

The White House guidance to Montana (source) this week said that officials should consider fines for individuals who do not follow mask guidelines in areas with large numbers of active COVID cases. Governor Steve Bullock told reporters on Tuesday that he will not be implementing an action like that.

“We’re all tired of having this virus around. We’ll continue to listen to public health experts, but we solve this not by having government regulation alone. We solve it by recognizing that we want to keep our schools and businesses open,” said Bullock. “I’ve talked with top business owners across the state that weren’t shut down because of our stay at home order, they were shut down because they ended up with positive cases in their workforce.”

Bullock says ultimately it’s on all of us to limit community transmission in order to ensure businesses can stay open, schools can remain in session, and our most vulnerable are less likely to catch the disease.

Officials attribute much of the increase in cases to group settings, such as schools, jails, and nursing homes.

There was a 90 percent increase in COVID cases between the week ending September 4 and the week ending on September 18 for individuals under the age of 19.

Labor Day activities and social distancing fatigue are also cited as significant contributing factors for many cases. “We’re seeing connections to certain social events… whether it be parties or gatherings with families or going to bars, ” explained Lead Communicable Disease Epidemiologist Stacey Anderson. “To date can we say that 40 percent of our COVID are attributed to the age group of 20-39 years-old.”

State Medical Officer Dr. Greg Holzman said the increase in numbers is a troubling trend that will only bring more suffering to Montana families unless more people begin following COVID guidelines such as wearing a mask and limiting social gatherings.

“When disease rates rise we see more suffering, we see more death, we see schools that have to close down. Not necessarily because of a health mandate, but because we don’t have teachers or students to learn. We can see businesses suffer as people are concerned about going out and acquiring the virus,” said Holzman.

Holzman also addressed critics who say the virus isn’t as bad as the medical community is making it out to be. “While we can state that those with underlying conditions are at higher risk to have a poorer outcome, we cannot state how one individual will respond to getting this virus. I can tell you that in the United States (we have) well over 200,000 excess deaths. Deaths that are more than we have seen in past years for the same time period. Those excess deaths started in February.”

There were 275 new cases and three new deaths added to the total on the Montana Response COVID-19 tracking site on Tuesday morning. The data below is from the official Montana website on September 22:

  • TOTAL CASES & RECOVERIES: Montana now reports 10,700 cumulative cases statewide, with 7,937 people recovered.
  • HOSPITALIZATIONS: There are 111 patients hospitalized, and a total of 584 hospitalizations since the pandemic began.
  • ACTIVE CASES: The state reports there are currently 2,600 active cases in Montana.
  • DEATHS: The cumulative number of deaths attributed to COVID-19 in Montana is 163, an increase of three since yesterday.
  • TESTING: The number of new tests is 2,747; the cumulative total of tests since March is now 314,009.

Numbers reported by the state each day occasionally differ from those reported by county public health departments due to periodic lag times in reporting data to the state. We encourage people to check the official website and/or Facebook page of their respective county health department for any updates that are not yet included in the state's daily updates.