Plea for community action as COVID cases explode

MISSOULA COUNTY – With the seven day rolling average of active cases per 100,000 people hitting a new record high of 87 on Friday, Sept. 17 and active cases above 1,150, Missoula County leaders made a plea for residents to get vaccinated, social distance and go back to the basics of wearing a mask, hand washing, limiting social circles and staying home if sick.

Missoula City-County Health Officer D'Shane Barnett said the numbers are such that mask mandates and other regulations including limiting event sizes could be in place, "Unfortunately we have anti-health state legislators that went out of their way to make that not possible. A lot of actions to mitigate COVID-19 have been taken out of our hands here in Missoula."

"We can not order you to wear a mask. Even if we could, frankly we need to rely on the good will and good nature of human beings to do the right thing," said Missoula City Mayor John Engen. "Mask mandate or not, please wear a mask and protect yourself and others. If we are going to have a community that we can continue to enjoy and where people are safe and cared for, we need folks to take the precautions and take the steps necessary to get us closer to normal."

Back in 2020, Missoula County imposed restrictions on businesses and limited events in April when there were 40 total cases with 14 active at the time. In July 2020, the Missoula City-County Health Board imposed a countywide mask mandate after active cases went from zero to 56 active cases in six weeks.

While masks were still recommended, the County rescinded the mask mandate in May 2021. The county based this decision on 60% of the county's eligible population had received at least one dose of the vaccination and the case incidence rate stayed below 25 new cases daily per 100,000 people on a seven-day rolling average.

On Thursday, Sept. 16, Missoula County's COVID-19 hospitalizations surpassed the record high of 43 recorded on Nov. 7, 2020, with 46 hospitalizations. Monday, Sept. 20 a new record was set with 50 hospitalized with COVID.

The record for average daily new cases per 100,000 people in the past seven days also surpassed the record high of 85 recorded on Nov. 21, 2020, with Friday's average being 87. By Monday, the average rose to 89.

"This is the absolute worst we have seen it since the pandemic started," explained COVID-19 Incident Commander Cindy Farr, "we cannot continue in this direction for the safety of the community."

As of Monday 19% of the 1,386 cases in Missoula County are 0-19-years-old and another 20% are in the 20-29 age group.

During Friday's press conference, Barnett said only 47% of the individuals 20-29 are fully vaccinated compared to 56% of the total eligible population in Missoula.

He added the Delta variant is causing people to get much sicker. In November 2020 there were 36 hospitalizations due to COVID or COVID-related issues. In the last month there were 76 hospitalizations with 70% of the in-patients being unvaccinated individuals.

"The data are clear and the data show this latest wave is hitting communities with low vaccination levels. We're proud that Missoula County has the highest vaccination rate in the state of Montana but, in the grand scheme of things, the vaccination rate is nowhere near a level that would be considered herd immunity," Barnett said in a press release.

In addition to getting vaccinated, Barnett emphasized that all the risk-mitigation behaviors are still effective and he encourages everyone to wear a mask in public, wash their hands and keep their social circles small.

One of the big changes they have seen since last year at this time is people are not limiting their social circles. Where someone last year would have had less than 10 close contacts, now people are having up to 100 close contacts. He said this is a lot more taxing and requires a lot more work to stop the spread of the disease.

Barnett asked that the community come together and stay out of the ER and the hospital to help decrease the burden on the local health system.

Local hospitals say they are overwhelmed. Friday morning Providence St. Patrick Hospital had 30 inpatients with COVID. Four are on a ventilator and 23 are unvaccinated. The average age of its patients is 45 to 50 and that they often require several weeks of care. Before the Delta variant became the prominent variant in Missoula County, the average age of hospitalizations was 80 years of age.

"It is begging individuals to get vaccinated, mask and social distance, go back to the very basics," Joyce DomBrowski, chief executive director for Providence. "We are not going to be able to provide the same level of care if we can't stop the flow of COVID patients coming into our organization."

Jim Gillhouse, chief operating office for Community Medical Center, reported they have 20 COVID patients, a third of their adult in-patients. Of those, 85% are unvaccinated and 93% of ICU patients are unvaccinated. Like Providence, they are seeing younger patients and COVID patients are getting sicker much quicker.

"The COVID vaccination is still our best defense against this pandemic," Gillhouse said.

Missoula County Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Rob Watson said they are wearing masks but are still experiencing the highest case numbers they have seen. They broke a record with 45 active cases and had 167 out of school due to quarantine as a close contact.

He said since the majority of the staff is vaccinated, most of the cases are in the students. Even with the higher case numbers, to-date they have not had to shut down any classes. While he stressed MCPS's goal is to maintain in-person learning, that is dependent on staff availability and the number of students that are out in a particular class.

Other local schools are also experiencing a rise in case numbers. Seeley-Swan High School is the only school with a mask mandate currently imposed.

After skirting active COVID cases last year, Seeley Lake Elementary reported a positive case Wednesday, Sept. 15. By Sunday, Sept. 19 there are five positive cases in the school and 26 students quarantined. Three of the cases were staff and two were students.

Potomac School reported a staff COVID exposure Sept. 16. Parents received a notice Sunday, Sept. 19 that due to a positive case in the second grade, all second and third grade students are quarantined. By Monday at 1 p.m., the school was informed that there was at least one positive cases in all six cohort groups. They shift to remote learning for all students starting Tuesday, Sept. 21. They hope to resume in-person learning as early as Monday, Sept. 27.

"The Delta variant is a game changer and it is without a doubt making younger people sicker," explained Farr, "this is why we need more young people to get vaccinated. Even if you think it won't impact you, you never truly know until you actually get it. Getting the vaccine is as close as you can get to being guaranteed you won't end up hospitalized."

Just days ago, on Saturday, Sept. 11, Missoula County broke its daily new COVID-19 case record with 157 new cases recorded. Farr says the Delta variant is so contagious we cannot rely on vaccines alone, and the public needs to step up other mitigation measures.

The Health Department and local doctors urge anyone 12-years-old and older to take the COVID-19 vaccine. Individuals with hesitations should speak to their physician. Individuals who don't have access to a physician are more than welcome to come to the vaccine clinic at the Southgate Mall and ask questions about the COVID-19 vaccines. The National Guard has been requested and is expected to arrive in Missoula this week to help provide assistance where needed.

The full press conference is available on the Missoula County Commissioners' YouTube channel. Visit


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