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U.S. Surgeon General Praises Montana's Progress With COVID-19, Health Officers Caution Vigilance Still Needed

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams speaks into a microphone flanked by the flags of the tribes in Montana.
Montana Public Affairs Network
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams praised Montanans for a recent downturn in coronavirus cases during a press conference Dec. 10, 2020 in Helena, Mont.

Montana confirmed 991 new COVID-19 cases and reported 24 more deaths from the virus Friday, which coincided with a visit from the U.S. surgeon general. He was optimistic about the strides Montana has made with the virus. But county health officials still urge residents to remain vigilant moving forward.

Gov. Steve Bullock said during a news conference Thursday that Montana’s COVID-19 positive test and hospitalization rates are beginning to decline following caps on group sizes and restaurant curfews enacted mid-November.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said during the same conference those figures offer a stark contrast to the country as a whole, which this week posted record single-day death tolls on consecutive days.

“Montana has proven that these mitigation efforts work," Adams said.

Adams added just because a vaccine is on the way, “That doesn’t mean you just open up the gates, and lay down and let the enemy attack you. That means you have to keep your guard up. You have to keep defending the fort until the cavalry arrives.”

Lewis and Clark County isn’t yet seeing the positive trends Bullock and Adams detailed for the state as a whole, according to Health Officer Drenda Niemann. She’s worried about the county’s seven-day average for new cases per 100,000 residents.

“That is really high. And it’s one of the highest in the state and definitely one of the highest in the nation," Niemann said.

Meanwhile, Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley said there are reasons for optimism, including fewer COVID-19 cases there, but he warns community transmission rates remain concerning.

"I’m really glad that our positivity rate’s down below 20 percent. I'm really glad we’re not seeing 150 cases per day. But we’re still seeing a significant number of cases," Kelley said.

Surgeon General Adams said, like past holidays, he expects an uptick of cases following Thanksgiving, which is why Montanans still need to wash hands frequently, social distance and wear masks.

That last point has been contentious in Montana, where GOP elected officials have generally opposed mask mandates. When asked about the Montana Legislature, which is currently considering rules for the upcoming session, Adams said the science is clear: masks keep establishments open and prevent the virus’ spread.

“You don’t want to be the reason that a woman in labor can’t get a hospital bed. You don’t want to be the reason a person who gets in a car accident in a snowstorm can’t get an ICU bed," Adams said.

While hospitalizations are down from late November, seven of the state’s ten large hospitals report limited inpatient bed capacity, including both hospitals in Billings, where Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton said virus case totals remain dangerously high.

“We are still at extreme risk of overwhelming our health care system and public health system even as we see these decreases," Felton said.

Though Montana expects to receive its first vaccine shipment next week, Felton said it will be many months before there are enough doses to relax individual protective measures.

An Associated Press-University of Chicago survey published this week found only half of Americans were willing to get vaccinated. Surgeon General Adams said that’s a problem if we want to drive the virus into the ground.

“I do want people to really think long and hard about refusing a vaccine that is 90 percent effective, that’s safe and that helps us end this terrible pandemic," Adams said.

The AP reports experts estimate at least 70 percent of the U.S. population needs to be vaccinated for herd immunity, the point at which the virus can be held in check.