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Once a model, Montana now a COVID-19 hotspot

The Ferndale Market in Bigfork, Montana, is one of five businesses sued by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services to force compliance with Gov. Steve Bullock’s mask mandate. A state court judge denied the state’s request for an injunction, finding no evidence the businesses were at fault. (Courthouse News photo / David Reese)

(CN) — Montana started out as a poster child for the novel coronavirus.

The Big Sky State boasted a low number of Covid-19 cases going into the summer and, along with Hawaii, had the fewest cases in the nation.

Then came summer. After keeping a tight rein on public gatherings throughout the spring, Governor Steve Bullock began to loosen restrictions in June. Then came the tourists and escapees from other Covid-19 states. The tourist migration coincided with a dramatic increase in Covid-19 cases in Montana — an increase that hasn’t stopped and has made Montana one of the fastest-growing hotspots of Covid in America.

Montana is now one of the top 10 states in the nation with per capita cases of Covid-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Montana had 7,479 new cases as of Nov. 17, and has a rate of 100.6 infections per 100,000 people, according to the CDC, and a death toll of 520 during the pandemic.

The state saw its first reported Covid-19 case March 11. Since then, the number of cases has climbed to just over 47,000, according to the CDC.

An early peak of Covid-19 infections occurred in late March. By June, the state had seen 500 cases. From there, cases dropped through August before rising again in September.

The largest increase of cases in Montana occurred in October, with 3,600 new cases reported during the first week and increasing to about 5,700 new reports in the last week of October, according to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

Part of the reason for the increase might be linked to Montanans’ lax approach to covering their faces in public.

Hoping to try to stem the tide of rising infections in Montana, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services on Oct. 22 sued five businesses in Flathead County of northwest Montana — one of the state’s Covid-19 hotspots — for not enforcing Bullock’s mask mandate.

The lawsuit by the public health agency sought an injunction against the businesses, but last week Flathead County District Court Judge Dan Wilson denied the request, finding the state lacks sufficient evidence that the businesses — two restaurants, a bar, a casino and a small convenience store — aren’t doing enough to encourage employees and the public to wear face coverings.

The lawsuit originated from a July 15 executive order by Bullock, a Democrat who just finished a failed run for Senate, requiring businesses to post signs requesting customers to wear masks while indoors and to take reasonable measures to ensure compliance by customers and employees. The directive provided no mechanism for enforcement, and many Montana businesses that have tried to enforce a mask mandate have felt the rebuke of customers.

The pandemic has caused a strain on Montana’s hospitals, a few of which are over 90% capacity, according to the CDC.

Mellody Sharpton, a spokesperson for Kalispell Regional Medical Center, said “like other hospitals across the state, Covid-19 has stretched our health care resources.”

And now, as a way to stem the tide of infections, the large health care organization has become the first in Montana to offer advanced testing for Covid-19 using an in-house molecular laboratory. Accurate and fast Covid-19 testing allows people to isolate themselves from others to prevent the spread of illness and seek care sooner if they have symptoms.

Dr. Jeffrey Tjaden, a Kalispell Regional infectious disease physician, said the molecular equipment helps expedite the testing process since it can test about 100 specimens at a time.

“Covid-19 can present with a variety of symptoms such as those seen with a cold or the flu, and patients can even have no symptoms,” Tjaden said. “It is important to test and identify all those persons infected with Covid-19, even asymptomatic ones, as they can unknowingly be transmitting the infection to other people.

“This very sensitive type of testing for a number of infectious diseases enables us to detect positive cases more rapidly and gives confidence in the results.”

Sykes Market in Kalispell, Montana, is one of five businesses sued by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services to force compliance with Gov. Steve Bullock’s mask mandate. A state court judge denied the state’s request for an injunction, finding no evidence the businesses were at fault. (Courthouse News photo / David Reese)

As of Oct. 30, 499,009 tests have been completed, according to the state health agency. An average of 36,000 tests were completed weekly in October, up by 50% from September.

During the first peak in late March and early April, the weekly positivity rate reached over 4% before dropping to a low of 0.4 percent in May. In June — tracking with the loosening of restrictions on public gatherings — the average weekly positivity rate reached 5% in July and August, according to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.

The numbers keep getting worse. The average weekly rate for positive Covid-19 cases in September was 7% and was around 12% in October, according to the state health agency.

Native Americans are one of Montana’s hardest-hit demographics. Native Americans make up about 7% of the state’s population. But tribal members represent 21% of reported Covid-19 cases in the state.

The Blackfeet Nation, based in Browning, recently extended a stay-at-home order. The tribe, which has seen 27 people die from Covid-19, reported 36 active cases on the reservation as of Saturday.

Bighorn County, home of the Crow Indian tribe, has had 45 deaths from Covid-19 as of Tuesday, accounting for 2.6% of Montana’s Covid fatalities.

Lester Ray Lodien, 69, contracted Covid-19 about 10 days ago and has been hospitalized at Kalispell Regional Medical Center since Saturday, undergoing Remdesivir treatment. He said via text from his hospital bed that his body has “responded amazingly” to the treatment, “especially considering my underlying health issues. The doctors have made note of that.”