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Montana Is Struggling With A Coronavirus Surge


It took Montana five months to hit 500 coronavirus cases. Now it is seeing more cases than that every single day. Hospitals are strained. They're diverting patients. They're setting up new intensive care beds. This is a challenge for Montana's governor, a Democrat who is running for a Senate seat. Here's Rachel Cramer from Yellowstone Public Radio.

RACHEL CRAMER, BYLINE: In downtown Bozeman, Laura Cunningham approaches a group of college students wearing masks.

LAURA CUNNINGHAM: Thanks, gentlemen, for wearing a mask. I want to give you guys an opportunity to win some prizes.


CUNNINGHAM: You can win Bridger Bowl or Big Sky ski passes, food...


CUNNINGHAM: Yeah. So thanks so much for doing it. We, appreciate, it,


CRAMER: Cunningham hands each of them a card with a unique code for an opportunity to win more than 200 prizes. With new cases here up 40% in a week, the county government is helping fund the so-called mask game because conventional measures aren't keeping up.

MATT KELLEY: We're not going to stop it through contact tracing when it gets to be this size.

CRAMER: County health officer Matt Kelley.

KELLEY: We need the help from the community. And, frankly, we need help from elected leaders. We need help from business leaders. We need help from faith leaders. We help across the boards from people.

CRAMER: Elected leaders haven't taken much action lately. Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock mandated masks in public spaces statewide in July. The average daily case count has more than tripled since then, but Bullock hasn't reimposed other restrictions. A lot of Montana is conservative and skeptical of masks. Bullock needs at least some Republicans to cross over and vote for him to win the tight U.S. Senate race here. Sally Mauk, a journalist who's covered Montana politics for decades, says imposing new restrictions would come with risks for Bullock.

SALLY MAUK: Republicans certainly would go after him for that, but his base would stick with him, for sure. And if things are bad enough, people might admire him for doing the moral thing over the political thing.

CRAMER: Early voting has started in Montana. And incumbent Sen. Steve Daines could suffer if public opinion about how President Trump is handling the pandemic continues to slip.

MAUK: Because he has been so gung-ho for the president and has been reluctant and, in fact, has not criticized the president's handling of the pandemic in any way, shape or form.

CRAMER: But it's regular people who need to change their everyday actions, says Gallatin County health officer Matt Kelley. He says the new rapid infection rate is being driven by social gatherings, including students returning to Montana State University.

KELLEY: We're seeing really significant disease spread - people in their 20s. We're seeing a really significant number of close contacts for people in their 20s. And we're seeing people who are coming into contact in a variety of settings, but we're hearing a lot about parties, about gatherings that people are having.

CRAMER: Public contempt for coronavirus safety has some people worried. Liz Cauthen, who works at a furniture store near Bozeman, says she's started seeing a counselor to help navigate the stress.

LIZ CAUTHEN: I work in a retail environment, so I see a lot of people who are still not distancing and still not wearing masks. So even though I think the mask mandate really helped, there are still days when I really question if my job is worth it, since I'm the only person in my household who works outside of the home, which means the burden of contagion really just falls on me.

CRAMER: For NPR News, I'm Rachel Cramer in Bozeman, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF BALMORHEA'S "NIGHT SQUALL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rachel is a UM grad working in the MTPR news department.
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