COVID cases soar; Missoula hospitals reinstate restrictions; restaurants close, county ends new testing program

The recent rapid increase in COVID-19 cases across Montana prompted Missoula’s two hospitals on Monday to revert back to its policy of no inpatient visitors.

The county also ended a new testing program that was intended to probe elements of the population for the virus. Several restaurants have closed after employees contracted the virus.

Montana is poised to reach a milestone of 1,000 coronavirus cases by the Fourth of July and has recorded 22 deaths so far. The state is now recording more daily cases than it did at the height of pandemic in March.

On Monday morning, 56 cases were reported, marking the largest daily tally since the pandemic began. The state now has 919 cases with 288 still active. More than a dozen people are currently being hospitalized.

Citing the jump in cases and evidence of community spread in Missoula and Lake counties, both Community and Providence on Monday announced their plans to revert back to a no-visitor policy, effective July 1.

“While hospital visitation or accompanying a patient for a medical appointment is valuable, there are times when limitations must be placed on incoming visitors to reduce the potential spread, exposure and transmission of novel coronavirus, COVID-19,” the hospital said in a statement. “This decision was made in collaboration with our infection disease specialists.”

The jump in cases corresponds to the state’s phased reopening on June 1, when Gov. Steve Bullock lifted several restrictions that were in place to limit the virus’ spread. That included larger crowd gatherings and a higher seating capacity at bars and restaurants. Bullock also lifted the mandatory quarantine of visitors and returning residents.

Missoula health officials permitted the economic expansion to move forward, but have pushed for increased mask wearing. They haven’t made it mandatory as have other states.

Since June 1, the number of cases in Montana have increased week over week, surpassing figures seen in March before the stay-at-home order was implemented. Missoula County now has 45 active cases resulting in 250 close contacts.

The numbers prompted county health officials to suspend a new sentinel testing program just days after it began. City-County Health Office Ellen Leahy was unavailable for comment.

Due to the recent surge in positive cases and the immense number of close contacts that need on-going medical support from (health department) staff, IC leadership decided to prioritize county testing services to symptomatic individuals and their close contacts,” the county said Monday in a statement.

This helps us better maintain our healthcare infrastructure and contact tracing capacities, as well as helps us continue meeting the significant current demand, and anticipated future needs directly related to these new cases.”

In Missoula, the southside restaurant Paradise Falls announced on its Facebook page on Friday that it had closed after one of its employees tested positive for the virus. On Monday, a second restaurant – the Staggering Ox – also closed after one of its employees also tested positive.

“We have been informed by the health department that one of our employees has tested positive for COVID-19,” the establishment said in a Tweet. “Nothing feels worse than keeping our doors closed to our loyal and beloved customers and friends, but our employees, our community and our future matter more than the many downsides of closing. We plan to safely reopen after our 14 day self-quarantine.”