By Evelyn Pyburn

So how long might everyone have to wear face masks, as has been mandated by Gov. Steve Bullock?

Until a vaccine is developed, according to County Health Officer John Felton – or until enough people get COVID-19 so as to develop “herd immunity.”

Given that the best- case scenarios regarding when a vaccine might become available is one year, so the prospect would be that face masks will be part of our daily attire for at least one year.

But there is a third possibility, quipped another government official – “until we get a new governor.” The statement reflects the controversy that swirls around the Governor’s edict.

Felton said he was well aware of the differing opinions and he knows a lot of people do not think the virus is a “big deal.” But, he said, it is a “big deal” to the families and friends of the people who have died in Yellowstone County and to those who have had to quarantine and have not been able to go to work.

Blaming the state economic shutdown, job losses and business closures on COVID-19, Felton said, “To the businesses that are now limited, they believe it is a big deal. To the millions who have lost their jobs, they think it is a big deal. And, the residents and staff of Canyon Creek and their families think it is a big deal.” Since July 6, 19 residents from Canyon Creek Memory Care in Billings have died from the disease.

Those who might not believe the virus is a “big deal” are often of the opinion that the requirement to wear masks is a “back door” effort to curtail businesses without appearing to actually shut them down, since many people faced with having to wear masks will opt not go shopping. Closed businesses, and people without jobs, are viewed as negatively impacting the Trump administration, and would diminish his re-election prospects. That suspicion sets the table to make the entire issue more of a political conflict than a health issue.

Governor Bullock said, “There’s no reason this needs to be political, because COVID-19 isn’t political. Instead, this is about being a Montanan and being supportive of those around us. Montanans need to not only feel safe, but be safe to continue supporting small businesses like restaurants, breweries, clothing stores, bookshops, and more.”

Felton said that RiverStone Health (county health) “strongly supports” the Governor’s mandate that almost everyone in the state, must wear a face mask. He emphasized, that “universal masking has been shown to dramatically reduce the spread of COVID.”

During a recent press conference, Felton outlined the increase in the number of cases of COVID in Yellowstone County.  The county has about a third of the 1320 active cases in the state, 458 were identified in the first 16 days of July and 256 over the next week. Many cases in 13 counties and two reservations have been linked to exposures in Yellowstone County, which Felton described as “the epicenter of the pandemic in Montana.” The spike in case numbers necessitates a need to impose greater restrictions on wearing face masks and social distancing, he said.

Given that it will take some weeks for the restrictions to take effect, Felton said, “we are looking forward to a pretty rough rest of July.”

Asked, “What happens if the numbers drop? Will the disease go away or will we always have to wear masks?”

To that Felton again described the direness of the situation, concluding we need to be prepared for the “long haul.”

“What’s the long haul?” he was asked. Until a vaccine is developed or we gain “herd immunity,” he said.  Felton explained “herd immunity,” citing a study conducted in Mississippi, which concluded that there would have to be more than 3200 positive tests a day to develop herd immunity in that state, or about 70 percent of the population. In Yellowstone County 70 percent would amount to 115,000 people.

There have been 3,475 confirmed cases of COVID-19 of the 161,408 people tested in Montana. While a shortage of available testing materials kept the number of tests done in Montana at around 300 a day, the number of tests increased to over 3,000 a day on average when tests became more available. RiverStone Health even began offering tests at no charge for people with no symptoms. The most recent testing in a day totaled 5,883.

Bullocks’ directive requires businesses, government offices and other indoor spaces open to the public to ensure that employees, contractors, volunteers, customers, and other members of the public wear a face mask that covers their mouth and nose while remaining inside these spaces. The directive also requires face coverings at organized outdoor activities of 50 or more people, where social distancing is not possible or is not observed.

The directive does not require face coverings in counties with three or fewer active cases or for children under 5.

Masks are not required while eating or drinking at businesses that sell food or drinks or during activities that make face coverings unsafe (like strenuous physical exercise or swimming), while giving speeches or performances in front of a socially distanced audience, while receiving medical care or for people with preexisting condition that would make wearing a face covering unsafe.

Many businesses are complying with the directive in posting notices that inform their patrons of the Governor’s directive, but the postings sometimes state that they will not act to enforce the restrictions. Some businesses provide masks if patrons want them. Many businesses require their employees to wear masks, but leave their customers to make that decision for themselves.

Sheriffs in 38 of Montana’s 52 counties (including Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder) have signed a letter stating that they will not enforce the Governor’s mandate because it is not a law. “The statewide face covering order is a public health directive. It is not a mandate for law enforcement to issue citations and arrest violators,” reads the letter. 

 RiverStone announced that because of a nationwide backlog at the company with which they have contracted to process tests — Quest Diagnostics — RiverStone Health will no longer provide communitywide COVID-19 testing. 

Under the guidance of the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, RiverStone Health will continue to offer free testing, but only to people who are “close contacts” of someone who already tested positive or who have symptoms of COVID-19.

As of July 26, Yellowstone County has 499 active cases of COVID-19, total recovered 388; total deaths 23; total confirmed cases 910. Statewide, there are 3,475 confirmed cases, 2,104 recovered, 1,320 active cases, 62 active hospitalizations, 205 total hospitalizations, and 51 deaths. 161,408 people have been tested statewide.


You must be logged in to post a comment.