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Health Officials Plead With Montanans To Stay Home, Follow COVID-19 Guidelines

Gov. Steve Bullock and health officials today asked Montanans to stay home as COVID-19 numbers flare across the state. The plea comes as the disease rises to the fourth leading cause of death in Montana and ahead of a holiday season that health experts expect will make matters worse.

With more than 17,000 people currently infected with the virus and thousands more in quarantine after potential exposure, schools and businesses are closing and the public health defense system is struggling to keep up. Chief Medical Officer Greg Holzman says four hospitals in the state are working over their capacity and some counties aren’t able to trace contacts in a timely manner.

Holzman says it isn’t an option for the state to move back to phase 1 of Gov. Bullock’s gradual reopening plan, which would further restrict capacity at businesses, minimize non-essential travel and encourage all vulnerable individuals to stay at home. Holzman says that’s not an option because there isn’t enough federal aid to support businesses and employees during widespread restrictions. 

"While our understanding that the federal government will be working on a new stimulus package, we cannot wait. With the resources that we currently have, we need to maximize our testing and ask everyone to follow these simple public health guidelines."

The state’s COVID-19 response will soon be led by Governor-elect Greg Gianforte. Last week, Gianforte announced a COVID-19 task force to help inform the state’s response under the new administration. 

Gov. Bullock said Thursday his office has offered Gianforte support from the state’s current coronavirus team in the transition, adding there haven’t been any meetings to date.

"We will provide information; everything from briefings, meetings, familiarizing the team with how things are run at the state lab, how things are run at Disaster and Emergency Services, sharing relevant documents. But at this point, it's their, sort of, getting their legs underneath. Telling them what they should be focusing on is probably a little bit premature."

Bullock says he’ll do everything he can until he’s out of office to address the coronavirus pandemic. 

As winter comes, top state health officials expect coronavirus cases could continue to grow. State Lead Communicable Disease Epidemiologist Stacey Anderson encouraged Montanans to stay safe during the holidays by limiting gatherings to household members, celebrating virtually and delivering care packages. 

"Rather than having a potluck type of serving at a meal, designate one person to serve the meal. Give them that job and make sure they're wearing a mask. Make sure they’re serving people individually, one at a time with appropriate social distancing in place."

Anderson and others said staying home is the strongest weapon Montana has to flatten the curve.

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Corin Cates-Carney is the Flathead Valley reporter for MTPR.