The coronavirus pandemic claimed the lives of two more Missoula County residents on Thursday while Gov. Steve Bullock said another member of his staff had tested positive for the virus.

The number of statewide cases continue to climb, with 891 reported on Thursday – the second highest daily count of the pandemic. While the death toll passed the 300 mark last weekend, it now stands at 337.

A number of counties, including Missoula and Cascade, have implemented local orders more stringent than those imposed by the state.

I've always been supportive of local public health departments adopting further measures as needed to address the virus in their communities,” Bullock said. “That support continues to this day.”

The Governor's Office on Wednesday confirmed that a staff member had tested positive for the virus. Bullock and Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney were both tested on Wednesday and received negative results. They were tested again on Thursday and the outcome was the same.

Bullock said the staffer who tested positive led to four other staffers who were considered close contacts. One of them tested positive for the virus on Thursday.

We have six staff in total impacted, two positive and four negative,” Bullock said. “All six will stay under quarantine or isolation for the recommended 14-day period. We have and continue to take this virus seriously in the Governor's Office.”

Bullock said both staff and visitors are required to wear masks, and nurses conduct temperature checks on staff each morning.

This virus can impact anyone,” Bullock said. “We've implemented and are following the guidelines for restrictions to do everything we can to minimize the risk of transmission.”

The statewide case count of 891 on Thursday is second only to the 924 cases reported last week. The state's daily count of new cases has remained above 417 since early October.

With the number of cases continuing to surge, the Missoula City-County Health Department took action this week to implement more stringent orders in an effort to stem the spread. They set the benchmark at 25 average daily cases per 100,000 population and said it will likely take several weeks to reach that level.

The seven-day average incidence rate is 46 per 100,000 – down from 49 on yesterday,” said Cindy Farr, the county's incident commander. “The goal is an average daily incidence rate of 25 per 100,000 or less for two consecutive weeks.”

The daily COVID-19 case count as reported by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.
The daily COVID-19 case count as reported by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

County health officials reported 57 new cases on Thursday with more than 1,630 close contacts. Thirty individuals are currently being hospitalized in the county and two more have died, both adults, bringing the county's death toll to 16.

It's not a 'sham-demick,'” Bullock said. “It's something we all can take a little more seriously. It's incumbent upon each of us to do our part as individuals to better protect the community.”

The virus has done more than slow business and take lives across the state. It also has led to a shortage of healthcare workers.

To address the shortage, Bullock said the state has secured five teams each comprised of five individuals from the federal government to help fill the gap in the shortage of healthcare workers in rural areas.

The first three teams arrive next week and will be situated along the Hi-Line and in eastern Montana. The two additional teams will follow the week after and will be dispersed where needed. Each team will remain on the ground for 30 days, Bullock said.

With the increasing number of COVID cases across Montana, this increases the likelinhood of healthcare workers becoming infected with the virus, or having to quarantine for being a close contact,” Bullock said.

Making sure we can manage staffing needs will not only help those rural hospitals stay open, but also prevent patients from having to be transferred to higher care facilities that would take up more bed space in urban hospitals.”