The big coronavirus news in the Treasure State this week is the new mask mandate, and that testing for anyone not showing COVID-19 symptoms is about to hit a big pause.
Corin Cates-Carney and Nicky Ouellet walk you through this week's developments, including when and where the mask mandate applies.
The following is a lightly-edited transcription.
Cates-Carney: On Wednesday, Gov. Steve Bullock followed more than 20 other states in requiring Montanans age 5 and up to wear a mask while in public spaces or at large gatherings where social distancing isn't happening.
"No shirt, no shoes, no mask, no service. It's that simple,"
Ouellet The directive only applies to counties with four or more active cases of COVID-19, which as of late last night was about two dozen of Montana's 56 counties.
Cates-Carney Business owners or whoever is in charge of that indoor space are expected to provide employees or volunteers with a mask. Businesses can ask people who aren't wearing a face covering to leave.
Ouellet Bullock again called on Montanans to, as he said, do the right thing. Wear a mask to protect your neighbors and the most vulnerable among us. He directed County Public Health and law enforcement to focus enforcement efforts on education rather than punishment, although the directive says penalties should be assigned for egregious or repeat violations.
Cates-Carney There are exemptions to this mask mandate. Kids under five aren't required to wear a mask, but they're strongly encouraged to. And if you're out at a restaurant, you don't have to put a mask on if you're eating or drinking.
Nicky Ouellet You don't need a mask while in circumstances that would make you unsafe. Like if you're swimming or exercising strenuously or if you have certain medical conditions.
Cates-Carney If you're giving a speech or performing and the audience is six feet away or more, you can take your mask off. This is why we don't see public officials like the governor often wearing a mask during press conferences.
Ouellet No mask needed when you're talking to someone who's hearing impaired. Or if you need to show your face for identification purposes.
Cates-Carney Or if a medical provider asks you to take it off during an exam.
Ouellet Bullock is trying to walk a fine line between urging personal responsibility against top-down mandates. Some say Bullock should have made this rule sooner than he did. Others say he's going too far and the face coverings should be a personal choice. There's already been one protest against masks that was in Bozeman. Our reporter Rachael Cramer swung by. She says about 70 people were there, along with a handful of counter protesters in favor of masks. "We love freedom."
"We want freedom."
Cates-Carney The other big coronavirus news in Montanans this week is that testing for anyone not showing COVID-19 symptoms is about to hit a big pause.
Ouellet So there's two avenues for testing for COVID. One is for people who are actively showing symptoms or who were in close contact with another person who tested positive. That type of testing has been happening all along and it will continue. Jim Murphy is the head of the State Health Department's Communicable Disease Bureau. He said the state health lab has ramped up its capacity from 300 tests today in March to thirteen hundred a day now.
"I think we've seen a ton of improvements and I do feel that we are confident that we have the ability in-house to handle the needs of symptomatic people and contacts who are recommended to be tested these days. So I think we're doing all right on that. It's the larger mass screening events right now that we need help. "
Cates-Carney Quest Labs is the company in the state had contracted for those mass screening events for asymptomatic individuals.
Ouellet There's been about two dozen of these surveillance or mass testing events so far.
Cates-Carney And are they catching new cases at these events?
Ouellet Yeah. Although the majority of cases are found through contact tracing investigations. Statewide, there've been 26 surveillance testing events since the start of June. For people not showing symptoms, for instance, Riverstone Health, that's Yellowstone County's Health Department, held one on June 20th. They tested 463 people and three came back positive, although case investigations later determined those folks had symptoms when they were tested. Big Horn County also found a number of people with COVID-19 who weren't showing symptoms when they went in for a surveillance testing event.
Cates-Carney These surveillance testing events or drive-through testing sites were just starting to ramp up. And we're hoping the state hit hit the 15,000 test per week mark that Bullock has set as a goal a few weeks ago.
Ouellet And that's all going to essentially stop for a couple weeks while Quest works through a nationwide backlog of tests.
Cates-Carney On that Wednesday press call we mentioned earlier, Bullock said Quest won't accept tests from Montana for two or three weeks.
"This pause might disrupt two dozen surveillance testing events across the state scheduled to take place over the next few weeks when it takes a week to 10 days or more to provide us results back on our tests. It really is of more limited value to Montanans."
Cates-Carney Why did Bullock say the test is of limited value when results don't come back for 10 days?
Ouellet The strategy to contain COVID-19 is to find new cases through testing, and isolate them, then to track down anyone they might have passed the virus on to and remove those people from the general population, to0. That's containment. For that to work you need test results to come back really quickly, so contact tracing can start right away again. Jim Murphy with the State Health Department said for people who are showing symptoms, that process is still working in a timely manner.
Cates-Carney And what's happening with the tests taken at the most recent surveillance testing events?
Ouellet It could take a while before those results come back. And that's problematic. People with symptoms and people who are identified as close contacts of known cases are told to quarantine while they wait for their results. But John Felton, the health officer at Yellowstone County, said that's not always happening.
"We do know that some people who are in quarantine are out and about running errands, doing that sort of thing, going to their friends' homes. They need to stay home. People are in quarantine for a reason. And that reason is that people who fail to isolate or quarantine can infect others, leading to a growth in cases."
Cates-Carney Let's stay in Yellowstone County for a minute because there's been some really rapid rising of case numbers there.
Ouellet Yeah. Felton said just in the past week, Yellowstone County has 256 new cases and people from outside the county are also picking it up here and then bringing it home with them.
"Right now, all roads lead to Yellowstone County. Yellowstone County is the epicenter of the pandemic in Montana. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services has linked cases in Yellowstone County to 13 other counties and to Indian reservations. Those are linked to exposures to Yellowstone County residents and indoor activities and events occurring in our county. "
Ouellet Felton said contact tracing is slow because people aren't answering or returning calls from the health department, so investigations can't get started. Riverstone has already pulled employees from other departments and hired on 17 temporary staff. But that's still not enough for contact tracing. They're trying to hire another five to six full-time equivalents. And just to put this in perspective, Felton said if each person with COVID-19 has five close contacts and there are 440 cases, that's 2,200 contacts to track down and put in quarantine.
Cates-Carney So contact tracing sounds pretty stressed.
Ouellet Felton called it stressed to the max. He said so far, hospitals haven't had to turn anyone seeking care away. And there's enough personal protective equipment for frontline health care workers and first responders. But he said all of that could change really quickly if people don't start taking personal responsibility and taking the virus seriously.
"It's just not that hard. Wear a mask. Watch your distance. Wash your hands. Stay home if you're sick. If all of us do that, we're going to reduce the risk not only to our to the population in general, but especially to those vulnerable populations."
Ouellet That said, Felton said it'll take a couple weeks for us to see the impact of everyone wearing masks. And he said we should expect a rough rest of July.
Cates-Carney Thanks for the update, Nicky.