Flathead County Sees Rise in COVID-19 Cases, Hospitalizations

County has frequently led the state in new daily cases as vaccination rate lags

By Myers Reece
COVID-19 vaccines are prepared for residents and staff of Heritage Place nursing home in Kalispell on Jan. 16, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been ticking up in Flathead County in recent weeks, as the county frequently leads the state in new daily cases while its vaccination rate continues to lag behind the rates in Montana’s other populated counties.

Health Officer Joe Russell noted on July 19 that over the weekend and Monday the county received confirmation of 59 new cases. New daily cases have regularly been in the 20-25 range after a period of consistently registering in the single digits, while the county averaged above 125 active cases last week.

“Our cases have really picked up,” Russell said. “There’s no doubt about it.”

The health department said on July 12 that case investigations revealed that many of the new cases were occurring in clusters driven by social gatherings “where multiple individuals are infected or exposed at the same time.”

While Russell said it was unclear whether gatherings and events were still driving the most recent cases, as compared to when the uptick started a couple weeks ago, he noted that nationwide there’s a correlation between areas with low vaccination rates, such as Flathead County, and higher increases in COVID-19 cases.

Russell said most of the new cases have involved unvaccinated people.

“Really the greatest prevention method we have is vaccination,” he said. “I would encourage people to get vaccinated. There are very few breakthrough cases. That means the vaccine is working.”

The health department says the vaccine has been found to be highly effective at preventing COVID-19 transmission and that recent studies indicate the vaccine also protects against new variants. 

As of today, 39% of Flathead County’s eligible population is fully immunized. All of Montana’s other most populated counties are above 50%, including Missoula at 60%, with the exception of Yellowstone at 46%.

Individuals who have been previously infected with COVID-19 may have some immunity, health officials said, but their remaining antibodies may not be enough to protect against stronger or more transmissible variants such as the Delta variant. Russell said some new local cases are attributed to the Delta variant, as well as other variants.

Fourteen people were hospitalized locally due to COVID-19 on July 16, although four of those hospitalizations were not residents of Flathead County. That number was down to 10 on Monday, including one non-county resident. Hospitalizations had been hovering in the five or six range leading up to last week.

The recent numbers are a far cry from the peaks in November and December, when new daily cases regularly were well over 100 and hospitalizations were commonly in the 20s into the 30s. But health officials are urging caution “in response to the influx of cases,” according to a July 12 press release.

In the press release, health officials asked the public to “make responsible choices and to take all necessary precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19.” 

“When a positive case is identified, our staff initiates a case investigation and works with the infected individual to help determine all close contacts that may have been exposed during their infectious period,” Russell said. “Close contacts who are unvaccinated are required to follow the CDC guidelines for self-quarantine and testing. However, fully vaccinated individuals who are exposed may continue regular activities as long as they remain asymptomatic.” 

Following a prolonged period of very few cases, Russell said the increasing infections “alarm” him. For one, the health department isn’t currently staffed to respond to large case numbers.

Russell is curious to see if the increase will lead to more people getting vaccinated, and he saw some anecdotal evidence of that occurring last week with a slight uptick in first doses.

“It seems that first doses are picking up again but nothing like we saw two months ago,” he said. “It will be interesting to see if rising cases will alert some people to want to get vaccinated.”

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