HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana health officials reported a record number of COVID-19 cases on Friday, a day after breaking a record that has stood since July. But a state health official said that cases aren’t necessarily on the rise.
The state confirmed 224 cases of COVID-19 on Friday, a day after setting a record of 221 cases.
Jim Murphy, chief of Montana’s Communicable Disease and Prevention Bureau, said some of the increase in cases in recent days came from a reporting backlog from local health departments, including in Flathead County, which reported 39 cases on Friday.
Increased case numbers and limited staffing have kept some departments from reporting cases to the state until several days after test results are received.
The beginning of the school year has caused what Murphy called a “mild bump” in cases throughout the state. Cases identified in school settings are “nothing really alarming so far,” he said. Some clusters in congregate settings, including nursing homes and detention centers, also have contributed to the mild bump in cases.
The number of cases in Montana has remained relatively steady since July, and Murphy said he expects cases to remain level at between 700 to 900 cases per week.
“It’s far, far higher than we would like, but at least it leveled off. It’s not increasing at the rate it was two months ago,” Murphy said.
Gov. Steve Bullock, who issued a statewide mask mandate in July, has stopped short of issuing more stringent coronavirus-related measures as confirmed cases have strained some hospitals and public health departments.
The surge in cases prompted officials on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation to issue a mandatory 14-day quarantine in the unincorporated communities of Babb and St. Mary, the Flathead Beacon reported.
Local health officials issued the quarantine order on Thursday, after identifying those communities as COVID-19 outbreak areas.
Yellowstone County, which has seen the largest coronavirus outbreak in the state, reported 174 new positive cases between Wednesday and Friday. The sudden spike has meant the public department does not have sufficient resources to conduct timely investigation and contact tracing for these cases, according to local officials.
“We have not been able to do the case investigation for all of those people,” said Barbara Schneeman, a spokesperson for the county health department. “I can’t tell you if people were out over Labor Day and were engaging in certain things, or if we’re seeing more cases in students, because we just haven’t had the chance to do the case investigation and look into the data.”
Schneeman said the county is prioritizing case investigation and contact tracing for school-aged children to identify and prevent outbreaks.
The virus has killed at least 146 people in Montana, including a woman in her 30s who died due to COVID-19 related illness at the Yellowstone County hospital on Wednesday.
The number of infections in Montana is thought to be far higher than the 9,871 confirmed cases because not everyone has been tested and people can be infected with the virus without having symptoms.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.
The spike in coronavirus cases comes as Montana’s economy continues to show signs of rebounding from the impact of the pandemic.
Montana’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.6% in August, down from 6.4% in July, Bullock announced on Friday.
The state has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the U.S., well below the national rate of 8.4%. But unemployment in Montana remains higher than pre-pandemic levels, with about 15,000 fewer jobs.
Applications for unemployment assistance were on the decline during the second week of September, according to the U.S. Employment and Training Administration.
Montana received 2,848 applications for unemployment assistance last week. Since March 14, nearly one-third of the state workforce has been unemployed at some point.
As of Sept. 5, just over 22,000 people in Montana were receiving unemployment benefits, which represents 4.8% of eligible workers, federal officials said.
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