As several Montana counties issue more restrictive health mandates to stem the spread of the coronavirus, Yellowstone County — with the highest number of active COVID-19 cases in the state — is rescinding all local health orders.
Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton noted active COVID-19 cases decreased in the last month at a press conference Thursday, and removed all local mandates effective immediately.
"I issued the latest Yellowstone County health officer order in November, when cases were rising rapidly in our county and extended it in an effort to ensure that cases didn't surge over the holidays. Cases, as we've said, have decreased significantly."
Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Gianforte said he intends to lift the mask order when the vaccine is available to those in the next distribution phase and lawmakers pass legal liability protections for businesses, schools and places of worship.
Felton says he usually follows the governor’s orders, so the county and state protocols are generally in sync with each other. Although current state law allows counties to enforce more restrictive local measures than the state, Felton says if Gianforte removes the statewide mask mandate, Yellowstone County will follow suit, at least initially.
"The statewide masking requirement remains in place. The restrictions on hours of operation and occupancy, delineated in the former governor’s November 2020 directives, are also still active."
Turning to the vaccine, Felton says the county is still working on vaccinating health care workers in Phase 1A and is unable to know when the next phase of vaccinations will begin due to supply availability shifting rapidly from week to week.
"I sincerely hope that over the course of the next few weeks that vaccine supply chain will stabilize and become clarified and allow us to have a better sense of how much vaccine will be coming to our community on a regular basis."
Felton says the department is hopeful there will not be a surge in new cases following the holidays, but it’s too soon to tell.
"The likely time that we'll start seeing a surge is in the next week or 10 days, if it's going to happen."
More than 85 percent of beds at St. Vincent’s and Billings Clinic, the county’s major hospitals, are currently occupied.