As of Monday, Montana had 3,784 active COVID-19 cases, with 2,639 cases added in the last seven days.
During the past week, 24 more people have died from the disease and 29 more have been hospitalized. In total, there are 220 active COVID-19 hospitalizations in Montana, according to the state dashboard.
Overall, 74% of Montana’s ICU beds are occupied, up from 69% last week, with 47 beds filled by COVID-19 patients, according to COVID Act Now.
The state continues to creep into critical levels, averaging 351 cases per day as of Aug. 20, the highest it's been since January.
From July 6 to Aug. 20, the average daily case count increased by 313.5 cases a day in 45 days. The last time Montana had a similar increase, it took 95 days to bump the average from 26.4 daily cases to 314.
Testing has ramped up in the last week with 28,877 new tests processed since Aug. 16.
RiverStone Health changed the case investigation indicator to yellow last week, meaning needs are beginning to outpace capacity for contact tracing.
“With the number of people testing positive for COVID-19, we have not been able to meet our goal of making initial contact and follow-up within 24 hours,” said RiverStone Health VP of Communications Barbara Schneeman. “Currently we do not have the capacity to do the contact tracing that results from a case investigation.”
On Monday, St. Vincent Healthcare had 41 COVID-19 inpatients and six COVID-19 patients in the ICU, six of which were intubated.
Over the weekend, three COVID-19 patients died at Billings Clinic with the youngest being 58 years old. Billings Clinic also admitted a 24-year-old and a 37-year-old with severe COVID-19 illness, underlining that in the fourth wave of infections, younger people are coming down with serious illness.
As of Monday, Billings Clinic had 40 inpatients with COVID-19 and about two-thirds of them were under 60 years old, much younger than in the past, said Nancy Iversen, director of patient safety and infection control at Billings Clinic.
Though the number of inpatients seems to have stabilized in the few weeks, Iversen said there is a constant flow of patients with some being released as more are admitted.
The hospital is caring for seven patients who are no longer infectious, but are recovering from long-haul COVID-19 symptoms. Out-of-state patients from Michigan, Washington, Nebraska, Texas, Idaho and Wyoming are also receiving care in Billings’ hospitals.
“Wyoming is a hotspot and people are coming here for their health care,” Iversen said as two of the weekend deaths were Wyoming residents.
The wave is being driven by the highly transmissible Delta variant and the lack of mitigation techniques being utilized. With school starting, Iversen said the state will see more of the same if masks, social distancing, hand washing and vaccinations are not implemented.
According to the state dashboard, 50% of the eligible population are fully immunized. Monday brought the full approval by the Food and Drug Administration for the Pfizer vaccine, proving that the dose meets high standards of safety.
Anyone who is 12 years old or older is eligible to be vaccinated, but only 32% of Montana residents age 12 to 17 have received the shot. Of 18-to-29-year-olds, 40% are vaccinated.
Garfield County, with 187 cases per 100,000 people is classified as a hotspot. As of Aug. 15, none of the aged 12 to 17 population had been vaccinated and 6% of those 18 to 29 years old had received the shot. Mineral County, also a hotspot, has had two instances of having more than 75 cases per 100,000 since July and reported 27% of those age 12 to 17 have been immunized.
Nationwide, from Aug. 5 to Aug. 12 about 121,000 children tested positive for COVID-19. Of the reported cases during that week, children represented 18%, up from 14.4% at the start of the pandemic, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Montana has also seen an uptick in pediatric cases over the last several weeks, according to Dr. Teresa Blaskovich, pediatrician at the Children’s Clinic and secretary treasurer of Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. This week the Billings children’s clinic reported a 7% positivity rate and the previous week reported 11% positivity in its patients.
Most children are continuing to have mild illness, but the increased chance of transmission with the Delta variant means family members are at higher risk of catching COVID, especially those who are unvaccinated.
An increase of breakthrough cases associated with the Delta variant also puts vaccinated family members at risk.
“Before, there could be family members who could isolate and avoid illness, but with this variant, it’s not as likely,” Blaskovich said. “Other children will likely acquire it as well and pass it to their families.”
The end summer has also marked an uptick in other respiratory illnesses such as Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), which normally appears in December.
“We’ve never seen (RSV) positives during this time of the year,” said Blaskovich, stressing that without mitigation of respiratory viruses, hospitals could be overwhelmed as school starts ramping up.
From her interaction with kids throughout the pandemic, Blaskovich has noticed increased depression and anxiety in patients related to isolation, health and financial struggles they see play out with their parents.
Relived that her kindergartner attends a school with a mask mandate, Blaskovich is concerned about other school districts as she watches the national trends, saying “you can’t assume that won’t happen here.”
Studies have shown that there are no negative effects on children wearing masks, according to information on the Mayo Clinic’s website. But children often look to their parents on how to react to masking or the outcomes of the pandemic.
“If a parent is resisting masking or the outcome of the pandemic, it will be harder for kids to comply, and will affect the child’s classmates and the classmates families,” Blaskovich said. “If you’re a good role model with wearing a mask (the kids) won’t have a problem with it.”