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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Montana Now Has 10,000 Active COVID Cases. Nobody’s Sure If We’ve Peaked Yet

There are over 10,000 active COVID-19 cases in Montana. The state reached that milestone Wednesday. Public health officials and experts say the latest outbreak is fueled by the Delta variant. MTPR’s Freddy Monares and Aaron Bolton looked into what Montana can expect to come next.

Freddy: Aaron to help frame where we’re at in this wave, can you remind us about when this Delta wave started?

Aaron: Yeah, this really seems to have kicked off in late July, early August. Magdalena Scott is the supervisor of the communicable disease section at the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. She says that’s about a month earlier than the big COVID wave last year.

“Our case numbers right now are kind of like what they were in October last fall, and then our deaths, we had more deaths reported this August then we did last [year].”

Aaron: About 100 people died from COVID-19 in August, according to state data. That’s double what we saw at that time last year. And the statewide death toll has grown by over 100 people so far in September, so it’s only getting worse at this point.

Freddy: Does the state health department have any sense when Montana's current wave might peak?

Aaron: Not really. Scott last week said there were small signs that cases could be slowing down, but this week we've seen some of the largest increases in daily case numbers compared to the past couple of months.

“We certainly can’t predict when we’re going to peak with our COVID activity and the deaths. We know that school recently started, so we are curious to see what that does to our COVID numbers.”

Freddy: Scott mentioned it’s too hard to predict when we could peak here in Montana, but I remember hearing a lot last fall about computer models making predictions about the timeline of COVID waves. What are they saying now?

Aaron: Well, a group of researchers advising the CDC put together some models saying that cases should begin to decline nationally.

Erin Landguth, a researcher at the University of Montana, says don’t drop your guard just yet. She explains there’s a lot of uncertainty in these models because there are just so many variables when it comes to human behavior and that’s what drives transmission.

“They all treat how we social distance differently, how many of us mask. So there’s a lot of parameters into the future.”

Aaron: Landguth adds that a lot has changed since last year when it comes to mask mandates, how seriously people are taking the pandemic, and then you add vaccination rates into the equation.

“You’d think we’d have more computational modeling power to throw at this problem, but we just don’t right now because of all of these parameters, just all this uncertainty.”

Aaron: She says models specific to Montana have cases peaking this week into early October, but again, she stressed the crystal ball is pretty cloudy right now.

Freddy: So there’s no model that can tell us for sure how the pandemic will play out in the coming weeks and months. But it’s not just cases that we’re talking about peaking, right?

Aaron: Yea, covid waves follow the same pattern. First we’ll see a rise in cases. After the peak in cases comes the consequences of that peak, more hospitalizations and deaths.

Freddy: I talked to a few epidemiologists, and they also mentioned hospitalizations and deaths lag behind cases.

Dr. Pia MacDonald is an infectious disease epidemiologist with RTI International. She says Montana will need to see declining cases for a number of weeks before the wave of deaths crashes.

“Absolutely, more people will die. The number of deaths by week will keep increasing until a few weeks after the cases start decreasing, because of that lag time.”

Aaron: So, certainly there’s a pattern to how COVID waves work. I’m wondering whether the experts you spoke with said if Montana is likely to follow other states that are starting to see cases decline? We didn’t see cases grow here until a few weeks after other states.

Freddy: I talked to Josh Michaud who is the associate director of global health policy at Kaiser Family Family Foundation. He says other states and the country as a whole may have crested in terms of cases, but he says there’s no guarantee every state will follow this broader trend.

“I think a concern is, of course, that as we get into winter months and weather turns colder, and people are congregating more indoors, people are back to work in offices more, schools are in session. And put all those things together and you might have a recipe for the virus to find the remaining vulnerable people.”

Freddy: So there could be some regional variability in the timing of covid waves. Dr. Mark Lurie, who is an associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Brown University School of Public Health, says it looks like Montana’s numbers will continue to climb.

“It would be hard to predict when the number of cases is going to start to fall off, but the current trajectory is certainly upward in a very, very steep direction.”

Freddy: All the people I spoke to for this story told me that the best way to get a handle on this is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible. How is the vaccination uptake looking across the state?

Aaron: About 52 percent of eligible Montanans are fully vaccinated. According to state data, an additional 1 percent of the eligible population is getting vaccinated about every two weeks. At that rate, it would take nearly two years for all Montanans eligible right now to come in for their shot.

Freddy: I asked Pia MacDonald what she thought of Missoula County, which has the highest vaccination rate at 64%. I asked her if people there are getting the shots fast enough.

“No. The quicker the better.”

Aaron: We could see vaccine uptake increase in kids soon. The Pfizer vaccine could soon be approved for kids ages 5 to 11 by federal regulators in the coming weeks. That could help boost vaccination rates.

Freddy: Thanks for your reporting.

Aaron: You too, Freddy.

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
Freddy Monares was a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio.
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