HELENA – Montana Gov. Steve Bullock was joined by U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams Thursday as they commended residents for reducing the spread of COVID-19 in the state while cases are on the rise in other parts of the country.
The number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Montana has declined in the past two weeks while testing has remained steady, Bullock said. The governor attributes the decline to new restrictions that went into place Nov. 20 that expanded an existing mask mandate to the entire state and required bars and casinos to close by 10 p.m.
Confirmed cases in Yellowstone County, which has seen the state’s largest outbreak, are down 36% since Nov. 20, the governor said.
There were 488 individuals hospitalized statewide with the virus on Thursday, according to the state health department, but Bullock said he expects the number to drop after local data is reconciled with the state’s reporting system.
Adams, who is visiting Montana to launch a testing facility in Fort Peck Indian Reservation, said Montana “has proven that these mitigation efforts work.”
The surgeon general’s endorsement of mask use comes as Republican state legislators declined to mandate mask use in the state Capitol in the upcoming legislative session which begins next month.
Adams also urged confidence in the COVID-19 vaccine. The first 9,750 doses of the vaccine are expected to be delivered to Montana next week.
“Whether it’s required or not, you should be raising your hand and saying, ‘I want to get vaccinated,’ because that’s going to allow you to more freely go about your business,” Adams said.
The first doses will be delivered to 10 major hospitals in the seven largest communities. Doses delivered in subsequent weeks will be reserved for rural health care workers and staff and residents of nursing facilities.
The governor and surgeon general warned against complacency even once vaccine distribution begins, saying that mask wearing and social distancing should continue.
Bullock said 284 contracted health care workers have been deployed to Montana hospitals dealing with a large number of COVID-19 patients. Close to 200 health care workers in the state are in isolation or quarantine due to virus exposure.
More than 70,800 people across the state have been diagnosed with the coronavirus since March, including 779 new confirmed cases reported Thursday. The true number is likely far higher because not everyone is tested and some people can be infected without showing symptoms.
The state has reported 781 deaths due to the virus.
That death toll includes a 71-year-old inmate at the Montana State Prison, who died Dec. 8 at the Community Medical Center in Missoula, marking the fifth COVID-19-related death of an inmate in the state.
For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for some — especially older adults and people with health problems — it can cause more severe illness and death.
In other virus-related news, the Flathead county health department hired Joe Russell to serve as public health officer beginning next week, after interim health officer Tamalee St. James Robinson resigned from the position, citing the county commissioners’ and board of health’s lack of support for mask use and other COVID-19 health restrictions. Russell headed the county health department from 1998 until his retirement in 2017.
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