Missoula County placed new restrictions on businesses Tuesday, calling it an essential step in reducing the number of COVID-19 cases, which have climbed for several weeks and are taxing the local healthcare system.

Four more county residents have died of the virus since Friday, bringing the toll to 14.

County health officers on Tuesday reported 60 new cases, with 673 considered active. The climbing case count has led to 1,522 close contacts – a figure health and elected officials described as unsustainable.

“We're doing this now to prevent what would otherwise become an impossible spread,” said county Commissioner Josh Slotnick. “The case numbers just got too high. Contact tracing almost becomes impossible. We've hit a spot where we can't effectively do that.”

Health Officer Ellen Leahy said the virus' continued spread required new “contagion strategies.” The current rate of infection stands at 51 cases per 100,000 population, placing Missoula County in “the red zone.”

Just 10 days ago, Leahy said, the cases per 100,000 population stood at 33.

“The virus has gotten ahead of us. It's time for us to act,” Leahy said. “I can't impress upon you how quickly it went to 51. We're above the red zone right now.”

The new orders issued on Tuesday will remain in place until the case count drops to 25 per 100,000 population.
The new orders issued on Tuesday will remain in place until the case count drops to 25 per 100,000 population.

With a goal of 25 cases per 100,000 or lower – the national metric – Leahy issued new orders. Among them, businesses will be limited to 50% capacity and alcohol service must end at 10 p.m.

Group sizes up to 50 people were permitted after restrictions were lifted earlier this year. Leahy reduced that figure to 25 people on Tuesday. None of the limitations target classrooms, schools or voting activities.

“If we meet that goal of 25 (cases), we can either loosen or lift some of these orders,” Leahy said. “As long as we don't meet it, we could actually need to tighten.”

With an incubation period of two weeks, Leahy said it's likely that case counts will continue to climb into November. But if the new restrictions work and are followed, improved results should begin to show shortly thereafter.

As it stands, the climbing number of cases is starting to stress both Community Medical Center and Providence St. Patrick Hospital. The current rate of COVID disease activity is no longer sustainable, hospital officials said.

“We had six caregivers who were not able to come to work today to take care of all of you because they have become exposed to community spread," said St. Patrick CEO Joyce Dombrouski. “The Emergency Department really is becoming overrun as well by individuals who are worried who have felt that perhaps they have put themselves in a position that they didn't need to. We don't want you to delay care if you really have an emergency. But we want to call you to action."

The new orders, which take effect at 8 a.m. on Thursday, October 29, are intended to prevent uncontrollable spread and keep schools open. They're also intended to maintain hospital access, and protect at-risk members of the population and essential services.

“Because most of us took this seriously early on, we flattened the curve,” said Missoula Mayor John Engen. “Today, however, we need to switch gears. There are simply too many cases of COVID to continue business as usual, or unusual, depending your perspective.”

Montana also made national news on Tuesday as the statewide case count climbed by 855 in a single day's reporting – the second highest of the months-long pandemic. More than 10,000 cases remain active and 350 people are currently being hospitalized.

The death count has risen to 305.

“The current rate of COVID disease activity in our community is just not sustainable,” said Dr. Robert Stenger, a physician serving on the Missoula City-County Health Board. “Driving that rate down is going to be essential for the protection of our health care infrastructure.”