Edit 9/23: A former version of this story misspelled Amesh Adalja's name and it has been corrected.
As COVID-19 cases continue to trend upward in Montana, state health officials say they’re concerned that outbreaks could further stress the state’s already thin health care system.
Montana lead epidemiologist Stacey Anderson says the recent increase in COVID-19 cases is connected to schools reopening, social gatherings and clusters among populations in close quarters, like long term care homes and correctional facilities.
Anderson says state data show there’s been a 90 percent spike in positive cases among school aged individuals over the last two weeks.
“Y’know, I think we all know when schools opened, we expected to see some cases associated with that activity," Anderson said.
Anderson says there’s been a 50 percent rise in COVID-19 cases in people ages 20 to 39 associated with increased social events like bar attendance over the last two weeks. And she says COVID-19 continues to spread with lethal effects in assisted living facilities and long term care centers.
Anderson says new cases among 20 and 30 year olds have also spiked, largely linked to social gatherings and bars.
The number of deaths in the state due to COVID-19 recently exceeded 160, according to state chief medical officer Gregory Holzman, who says that makes COVID-19 one of the top ten causes of death in Montana, above vehicle fatalities.
Holzman stresses the public should follow safety protocols, like staying six feet away from other people, wearing a mask and washing their hands.
“We need to do it all for each other. Otherwise I’m concerned we might see some of the outbreaks and the stressors on the hospitals that we’ve seen in Texas, Florida and many other states around us," Holzman said.
State health officials say six counties made up 75 percent of recent COVID-19 cases, including rural Rosebud, Roosevelt and Deer Lodge counties and the more populated Flathead, Missoula and Yellowstone Counties.
John Hopkins Center for Health Security Senior scholar Amesh Adalja says access to critical care physicians and equipment is a particular concern in rural areas.
"So we do worry in this next phase of the pandemic that rural areas that don’t have resources could get inundated and have the virus have an outsized impact, but it will kinda synergize with some of the lack of healthcare resources," Adalja said.
A recent White House report pegs Montana in the red zone for new cases of the novel coronavirus.
A list of White House recommendations for Montana includes considering a fine for violations of face mask mandates in high transmission communities.
That's a suggestion Montana Governor Steve Bullock says he will not take up.
“Now, we do things the Montana way here and we are not going to start encouraging the issuing of fines," Bullock said on the Tuesday press call.
"But I think the point here ought to be clear enough. We all need to do our part in wearing masks and find ways to encourage others to do the same.”
Other recommendations on the White House’s list include promoting personal responsibility for social distancing and face covering, regularly testing K-12 teachers, prison staff and public transportation workers as capacity allows and recruiting college students to perform contact tracing.