Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

County Health Officers: Social Distancing, Good Hygiene Still Needed

The marque at the Babcock Theater in Billings reads "Wash Your Hands, We Will Be Back."
Nicky Ouellet
Yellowstone Public Radio
The Babcock Theater in Billings photographed on March 23, 2020.

County health officers in Montana say residents must continue social distancing measures, even as the state mandated stay-at-home order lifts Sunday, in order to avoid future outbreaks of the COVID-19 illness caused by the novel coronavirus.

Many counties are aligning local business closure orders to the governor’s phased reopening plan. But health officers say people still need to social distance, wash hands often and stay home if they’re sick.

Missoula City-County Health Officer Cindy Farr in a daily briefing video Thursday said she expects a bump of new cases as people emerge from the stay at home order.

“There’s no evidence we’ve hit peak or that the worst of this is over,” Farr said.

She says the county’s public health department is still evaluating Governor Steve Bullock’s reopening plan to see if other local guidance is needed to protect the public and health care workers.

"We did not open things up," Farr said. "Rescinding the stay-at-home directive was not a local decision. And as we’ve mentioned before, we’ve been under the governor’s orders for several weeks now and not local directives. So those of you that are frustrated and confused by this, we totally understand.”

Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley said he assumed the state’s plan would have given a week’s notice ahead of reopening. But that didn’t happen. The Bozeman Daily Chronicle reports some members of the county’s health board said their vote Thursday to align the county’s business closures with the state are not “in the best interest of public health.”

Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said a new local closure order could be triggered if there’s a rise in new respiratory illnesses, shortage of personal protective equipment or testing materials, stress on the county’s health care facilities or people not adhering to social distancing.

He said he’s paying particular attention to vulnerable populations at long-term care facilities and shelters, and monitoring the needs of nearby communities that rely on Billings’ two hospitals for health care.

"It's important to remember that in Billings, we are a regional healthcare hub for a population of over 650,00 people," Felton said. "Surrounding states have not taken the same measures that Montana has, so we need to be aware not only what's going on in our community but our entire service area.

While state mandated public health directives lift for individuals Sunday, county health officers like Felton say residents must continue to follow the directives’ guidance: Stay home if you’re ill, stay six feet away from others and consider wearing a face covering if you’re out in public.

"Failure to follow these recommendations will likely mean more sick people, increased demands on our stressed healthcare and social service systems, and ultimately more families burying their loved ones," he said. "But if we all take these actions, we can make a difference."