By Evelyn Pyburn
In speaking to County Commissioners, County Health Officer John Felton said that although he is normally an optimistic person, “It’s getting increasingly hard to be optimistic,” regarding the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the state.
“The state is just on fire with cases,” said Felton.
The number of cases is nearing 100 per 100,000 population, which Felton said is very serious. Just under 6 percent of the population has been infected.
Montana has been experiencing escalating cases since mid-September, (see accompanying article) Felton said that he doesn’t know what else to do other than impose more restrictions, which happened with announcement from Governor Bullock that requires bars, restaurants and casinos to reduce capacity from 75 percent to 50 percent and to close at 10 pm – limitations that are the same as being totally shutdown for many businesses, beginning Nov. 20.
Felton broadened the restrictions on hours of operation to include all businesses. He has also hired four “liaison officers” to patrol businesses in Yellowstone County and oversee training of people failing to comply and oversee legal proceedings of enforcement against businesses.
“I know that there are significant economic impacts,” Felton said, noting that the situation is even more severe since, “we don’t have access to all the supports we had in the beginning with the CARES act.”
Montana ranks ninth in the nation in terms of COVID cases per 100,000 population which is at 95.4.
After the impact of the Canyon Creek nursing home cases, the number of cases in Yellowstone County dropped to a level more in keeping with its share of population, at about 16 percent.
Yellowstone County’s hospitals are at capacity. Besides space, the hospitals are struggling with having adequate staffing since many are either sick or quarantining.
“This is becoming a pretty significant issue for us,” said Felton.
The number of regional patients fluctuates between 40 and 60 daily. Billing’s medical community serves a regional population of about 650,000 people.
People have occasionally asked why they don’t just refuse to accept out- of- county patients, to which Felton explained that Billings has spent the last 40 years establishing itself as a regional medical center and has thrived economically on that distinction, in addition they have a moral responsibility to live up to the commitment.
Felton also pointed out that staffing issues are impacting local businesses, making it difficult for them to stay open. It is not that much different for them than being required shut down. Staffing shortages are also the primary issue with which schools are dealing.
Schools “haven’t seen a large number of kids becoming ill,” reported Felton. There has only been a slight increase in the number of cases since school began.
Yellowstone County is experiencing more deaths, said Felton. As of press time, the County had 107 deaths, with the number of confirmed cases in the county nearing 10,000. The state has had almost 50,000, with 543 deaths.
Felton rebuffed claims that hospitals get funding based on the number of COVID cases reported. He said, “There is no economic benefit to say that someone dies of COVID when they don’t.”
The good news lies in reports that there are two effective vaccines on their way. How they will be distributed has yet to be determined, and it is likely that the vaccines will have to be taken repeatedly, not unlike flu shots.
“I don’t know where the end point is,” said Felton, “….There is no evidence that we are at the top. What slows it down is when people decide this is enough. I have to do my part.”
“We know how to slow this thing down. ..There is no ‘magic sauce’”
It requires masking, distancing, and sanitizing. Bars, restaurants, gyms, schools and churches should be closed – “but we haven’t done that… now we are at the point.”
“There are no good choices,” said Felton.