BILLINGS — Yellowstone County public health officials held their first press conference in four months on Wednesday to encourage the community to get vaccinated against COVID-19 as the more contagious delta variant of the virus drives case numbers up across Montana.
“We do know that we can control this virus. Wearing masks, social distancing and being vaccinated are the things that we can do to make a significant difference in how we spread this virus in the community," said Dr. Michael Bush, SCL Health St. Vincent Healthcare chief medical officer.
Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said the county now has 50 percent more confirmed delta variant cases than any other county in the state.
“We now find ourselves, along with much of the rest of the country, experiencing more disease and more hospitalization," Felton said.
The most recent county data shows new daily cases per 100,000 population climbed to an average of 15 in the last week of July compared to an average closer to seven in the weeks previous stretching back to the start of June.
The county's level of transmission was listed as "high" by the Centers For Disease Control based on case numbers, positive test rates and the county's 47 percent vaccination rate on Wednesday, Felton said.
"Things are clearly getting worse in our community," Felton said.
Felton and Bush both pointed to vaccines as one of the primary ways to slow virus spread and to protect against a severe COVID-19 case that would require hospitalization.
“Vaccination helps reduce the virus spread and is the only preventative measure that makes the disease less severe if a person does get infected," Felton said.
Since the pandemic began in Yellowstone County, about 1,300 people have been hospitalized with COVID-19. Felton said of those people, 17 of them, or 1.3 percent, were fully vaccinated.
And of 285 Yellowstone County deaths, only four, or 1.4 percent, were fully vaccinated, Felton said. Three of the vaccinated deaths were people over 80 years old and the younger person had a pre-existing condition and a compromised immune system, Felton said.
To further make the case to get vaccinated, Bush said since June 1, St. Vincent staff have admitted 89 COVID-19 patients, and only 10 were vaccinated. Vaccinated people also stayed in the hospital for a shorter time- around four days- compared to an unvaccinated person's nine-day stay.
“Even given the preponderance of vaccination in the community, we still know that the likelihood of getting sick enough to be admitted to the hospital exists if you are not vaccinated and is greatly reduced if you are vaccinated," Bush said.
At St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, there were 16 people in the hospital with COVID-19 on Wednesday. Bush said he's expecting that number to double over the next month.
Bush said, the increased cases, combined with the usual increase in patients in the summer months had him worried about staffing.
Watch the full press conference below:
“We have experienced the same thing as Billings Clinic, which is very high volumes and capacity over the summer with all the trauma and other things that we see. Other illness and things that have been put off through the coronavirus pandemic," Bush said. “We have concerns about trying to manage this on a day to day basis.”
During this year's state legislative session, House Bill 121 became law and stripped the power of local health officials to implement directives to slow the spread of infectious disease while a state of emergency is not declared statewide. The bill also gives local governments power to amend or rescind public health directives at their discretion.
"It does require that local governments actually make the decisions. Public health can make recommendations. We are still working through how that will happen in our community," Felton said.
Gov. Greg Gianforte lifted the state's state of emergency in late June and the Billings City Council lifted its state of emergency in late July. Felton said he's still working with local governments to figure out the route to take if the COVID-19 situation further worsens and he would recommend public health directives be put in place.
"It’s a little more complicated here because our health department is by an agreement between Yellowstone County, the city of Billings, the city of Laurel and the town of Broadview. So we need to work through those local governments exactly how the process is going to be," Felton said.
Felton didn't give an exact trigger or case amount that would make him consider recommending local governments put public health directives in place.
“In terms of triggers, at this point we are a ways from making any sort of recommendation for community-wide imposed restrictions. We are kind of at the front end of this thing. We’ve seen this before and we know what it takes to slow it down," Felton said.
Felton reiterated the same prevention measures we've all been hearing for more than a year: get vaccinated, wear a mask in compressed public spaces, wash your hands and surfaces and stay home if you're sick.
"We can all do that right now. We don’t need to have that imposed on us. We can all make that decision and slow this thing down," Felton said.