All county-wide Covid-19 related health orders are no longer in effect, but that doesn’t mean things immediately change.
On Thursday morning, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton rescinded the order he first issued in November, while thanking county residents for complying as Covid-19 case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths have gone down over the last month.
He said 33 county residents died from the disease in October, 31 in November, and 30 in December. And in the same time, hospital patient numbers have cut in half.
“There wasn't an after-Thanksgiving surge in Yellowstone County," said Felton. “Even if the number of Covid-19 cases and deaths rose nationwide, Yellowstone County's case counts decreased in December.”
Felton acknowledged those in the community who have been taking precautions and said that cooperation has made “a great difference.”
The county health officer said he’s removing his orders out of respect to new Gov. Greg Gianforte to “manage the pandemic according to his policies.”
The statewide directives remain in phase 2 of the Reopening the Big Sky Plan. That includes masking, and occupancy and curfew hours for businesses. Those statewide directives must be modified or rescinded by the Governor.
Felton noted that businesses, organizations, and schools may maintain or create their own precautions for safety. And in case of a major increase in numbers, Felton did leave room to possibly issue additional Yellowstone County orders in the future. “But for now, we will fully embrace and follow the Governor’s directives without local modifications," he said.
Despite rescinding local health orders, Felton says the county will not be able to comply with the Governor’s recent vaccine reprioritization.
Earlier this week, Gianforte announced all residents between the ages of 16 and 69 with underlying medical conditions, and those over 70 years of age can be vaccinated.
Felton said expanding the plan to those individuals (Phase 1-B) means the potential of 250,000 to 300,00 more Montanan’s, and supply and demand just don’t match up.
The limited vaccine is currently going to Phase 1-A individuals. That includes healthcare workers, first responders and residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities. He said as more vaccines arrive it will be offered to “the next highest priority group until every Montanan who wants the vaccine has received it.”
But he’s not sure how soon the supply will catch up with the demand.
“The vaccine supply is not very predictable. It changes rapidly from week to week. We can't project out how long it'll take to get through 1-A. I hope that over the course of the next few weeks that vaccine supply chain will stabilize and become clarified and allow a better sense of how much vaccine is coming to the community on a regular basis.”
RiverStone Health is now conducting an online survey, and suggested community members weigh in. He said so far many residents have expressed concerns about the safety of the vaccine, but he stressed that evidence shows it is safe, and the benefits outweigh the potential side effects.
That survey will remain open through January 15, and can be found at Covid.RiverStonehealth.org.
RiverStone has expanded its free testing services.
Free testing for Covid-19 is available from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. weekdays at the RiverStone Health drive-thru testing site, located at 2173 Overland Ave. That testing is available for anyone with or without symptoms.
Felton said Yellowstone County contact tracers are now caught up after a major backlog of several hundred cases. He acknowledges that was achieved with a drop in cases, plus a new computerized case investigation system that RiverStone Health staff created.
Felton says overall most businesses stayed mindful of the 25-person gathering limit in December. The four county liaisons made 398 visits to businesses in December.
Despite rules in place, large parties did take place, but Felton said most bars observed the 10 p.m. closing directive. He also added the bars that flouted the curfew did so “despite education efforts.”
Watch the full press conference in the video below.