Bullock Warns COVID-19 Could ‘Get Out of Hand’ if Montanans Aren’t Vigilant

Governor urges precautions as state experiences rising cases; evidence of possible community spread reported on Blackfeet Indian Reservation

By Myers Reece
A nurse performs a nasal swab during a drive-through COVID-19 testing event at Polson High School on June 19, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Health officials on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation reported evidence of possible COVID-19 community spread days after the tribal council announced the closure of Glacier National Park’s eastern border for the remainder of the 2020 tourism season in an effort to safeguard residents from the virus.

Glacier County, which encompasses the reservation, doubled its total cases with nine new positives reported on June 28. A day earlier, tribal authorities announced new restrictions to combat the virus, including a mandatory 14-day stay-at-home order on the reservation, with exceptions to obtain essential services and supplies, and the prohibition of gatherings including restaurant dining.

Glacier County’s positives were among 56 reported statewide, the most new cases in a single day in Montana, although the state also completed its most tests on June 28 with 6,479, twice as many as its previous high.

Flathead County reported six new cases on June 28, bringing its total to 59 with 16 active, including one nonresident. The county has seen 41 recoveries and two deaths since the pandemic began.

Gov. Steve Bullock and state medical officer Greg Holzman last week stressed the importance of vigilantly practicing safety precautions as the state continues experiencing an uptick in positive cases. Montana is one of numerous states nationwide with rising cases, with several hotspot states deciding to roll back reopening plans as new positive cases shatter daily records.

“There’s no doubt that we’ve seen a spike in cases since Phase Two began,” Bullock said at a June 24 press conference, adding that the state continues to have the lowest per-capita number of positive cases in the country.

Among the precautions preached by Bullock and health officials are staying home when sick, wearing a mask when social distancing isn’t practical and quarantining or isolating when asked to do so by health officials.

“If we don’t do things right in Montana, the virus can quickly get out of hand,” the governor said. “Let’s continue to be that shining example for the rest of the nation as we did throughout our initial response to the virus.”

Montana has had 919 total confirmed cases as of June 29, with 609 recoveries and 288 active cases, as well as 100 hospitalizations, 13 active hospitalizations and 22 deaths.

State officials described the origins of several COVID-19 clusters, including ones tied to carloads of mask-less occupants and workplace settings, as well as a scenario where one case led to a number of cases across multiple counties.

“All it takes is one person,” Bullock said. “And then the virus can quickly take off and spread to others.”

The governor said out-of-state relatives staying in a family member’s household here or Montanans traveling out of state and then returning home are shown to be at higher risk of transmitting the virus than tourists of a more transient nature, given the longer periods of exposure.

Governors in Florida and Texas announced last week the mandatory re-closure of bars amid skyrocketing cases in those two states, while California’s governor also ordered bars to close in certain counties. The governors there and in other states, like Bullock, are pleading with people to wear masks in public.

“At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars,” Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott said in a statement.

Health officials in Gallatin County, which leads the state in cases, similarly reported that coronavirus transmission is stemming from crowded settings like parties, bars and restaurants, according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle. Health officer Matt Kelley said the county is experiencing widespread community transmission.

“This is serious, and we need people to take it seriously,” Kelley said, according to the Chronicle.

Globally, the virus has been confirmed in more than 10 million people and killed more than 500,000, as of June 29. The U.S. had by far the most cases and deaths as of that reporting, with over 2.5 million cases and 125,864 deaths, although Robert Redfield, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said last week the real figure for infected Americans could be 10 times higher.

The average age of positive cases has trended younger in many places, which health officials point to as evidence that healthy young people, who don’t generally experience as severe of symptoms, need to take precautions seriously so as not to spread the disease and infect vulnerable populations.

Asymptomatic testing for frontline workers continues in the Flathead, with sites added in Bigfork and Columbia Falls along with the locations in West Glacier and Whitefish. The Flathead Community Health Center’s Facebook page provides updates with information about sites and hours.

“Bigfork can feel a little separate from the rest of the Flathead Valley, so it is important that testing is available here to act as an early warning system for community spread,” Rebekah King, director of the Bigfork Area Chamber of Commerce, said in a press release.

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