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Bullock urges local steps to stop virus, none new from state

by Iris Samuels
| October 2, 2020 7:00 AM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock urged local officials where coronavirus cases are surging to consider stricter measures including shutting down bars in some hotspots to halt the virus' spread. But he stopped short Wednesday of any new statewide restrictions, as the state's COVID-19 caseload continues to grow dramatically.

Health officials reported 348 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, marking a new daily record for the third time in the past week.

Montana has surpassed 13,000 known cases, 180 people have died and 170 people are hospitalized. The case numbers are thought to be much higher because not everyone has been tested, and studies show people can have COVID-19 without having symptoms.

The governor said during a Wednesday news conference that six of the state's 56 counties account for 65% of new reported cases: Yellowstone, Roosevelt, Missoula, Flathead, Cascade and Gallatin.

Bullock said the increase "should cause us all some alarm." He urged Montana residents to follow guidelines and rules already in place, which include a mask requirement in counties with four or more active COVID-19 cases, in place since July.

Bullock, a Democrat, is in a tight race for a seat in the U.S. Senate, facing Republican incumbent Steve Daines. However, Bullock said politics have not played into his decisions on coronavirus-related restrictions.

"We are in a highly politicized time, but this virus doesn't care about politics," he said, adding there are some people who "think that somehow this virus is going to go away the day after the election."

During a Sept. 24 phone call between Bullock and Dr. Deborah Birx, a physician on the White House Coronavirus Task Force, Birx said she was concerned about the number of cases in Yellowstone County, Flathead County and numerous of the state's Indian Reservations that have experienced outbreaks, according to Bullock's office.

She suggested bars in Yellowstone county be closed to limit the spread of the virus, Bullock spokesperson Marissa Perry said. Restaurants and bars in Montana have been permitted to operate with few restrictions since June. Bullock said local authorities experiencing a surge in cases should consider further restrictions.

"In those areas, there should be consideration of further enforcement of masks. And there should be a discussion potentially about whether or not taverns remain open," he said Wednesday.

Whether fines should be given for mask mandate violators is up to local jurisdictions, he said.

Numerous sheriffs from across the state have said they won't impose fines over masks.

Birx offered her advice after Bullock asked to speak with Vice President Mike Pence during a recent visit to the state, and was instead put in touch with Birx.

Birx told KTVM-TV Wednesday morning that she is concerned about the spread of the virus in Montana. She said residents should not gather "even as families and neighbors," and urged people who have attended gatherings without wearing a mask to get tested.

Medical facilities in the state are facing challenges as the number of patients infected with COVID-19 increases, health officials with Bullock said.

Jim Murphy, Montana's chief epidemiologist, said Billings hospitals serving much of eastern Montana have seen days when almost all beds have been occupied.

Dr. Greg Holzman, state medical officer, said the Benefis Health System Hospital in Great Falls is at 115% capacity, with 37 people in the hospital diagnosed with COVID-19, seven of them in intensive care.

Holzman said hospital capacity is "very concerning" given the upcoming flu season, which typically leads to further strain on local hospitals.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.


Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.