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Custer County Recommends Reverting To Phase 1 In Face Of COVID-19 Cluster

A map shows active COVID-19 cases by county in Montana.
Montana State Library
Montana reported 25 new cases of the COVID-19 illness on June 18, 2020, the most single-day cases since late March.

Custer County reported a new cluster of six related COVID-19 cases June 17. As a result, county health officials today issued a two-week recommendation for residents to operate as if they’re back under Phase 1 of Montana’s economic reopening plan.

Custer County Public Health Officer and physician Mike Kecskes advises limiting gatherings to 10 or fewer people, curbing inessential travel and avoiding contact with vulnerable populations.

“We’re working on trying to pause business and activities as usual. I know folks, myself included, are really eager to get out for the summer. But right now Custer County is in a very, very different place than the rest of Montana,” Kecskes said.

Big Horn County also issued new health restrictions last week amid a rising case total. Several tribal governments are taking a more measured approach to reopening, too.

Kecskes says all 19 of rural Custer County’s total cases were reported in the past two weeks. That’s one fewer case over a much shorter time span than both Cascade and Lewis and Clark counties, which are heavily populated compared to Custer.

“We don’t have Helena's health department or the womanpower or manpower that they do there,” Kecskes added.

The Montana National Guard is holding a mass testing event in Custer County on June 19. Kecskes says more than 500 county residents have been tested so far.

In response to an email seeking comment about whether Gov. Steve Bullock is considering rolling back reopening at the state level, a spokesperson responded:

“While we do have concerns about the increase in cases we are seeing in Montana, we still have the lowest number of cases, hospitalizations, and deaths per capita in the lower 48. We must commit to doing more to slow the spread over the coming months. We don’t want to take any steps backward after we’ve come so far in successfully maintaining the lowest number of cases in the nation.”

Testing has ramped up significantly in recent weeks as supplies became available and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded guidance about who should receive a test.

That guidance now includes everyone considered a close contact of a lab-confirmed positive case, anyone exhibiting a single symptom of the illness and diagnostic testing for people not exhibiting any symptoms has recently become available in several locations in Montana.