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County seeing spike in COVID-19 cases

by DERRICK PERKINS
Editor | September 14, 2021 7:00 AM

More than a year into the pandemic, Lincoln County is seeing more cases of COVID-19 than ever before.

“We are setting new records every day,” said Jennifer McCully, public health manager, at a Sept. 8 meeting of the county commissioners.

The 14-day case rate recently surpassed levels hit in November 2020 as did the percentage of positive tests, according to data compiled by county health officials. McCully told commissioners that the department had seen the county add new cases by more than 40 a day.

About 27 percent of the county’s total cases — that is, throughout the pandemic — occurred in the weeks since July 12, she said. The highly contagious delta variant became the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the country that same month.

“We are incredibly busy,” McCully said. “People are sicker than they ever have been.”

As of Sept. 11, the county was home to 295 active cases with 22 residents hospitalized. Since March 2020, 37 people have died from COVID-19 locally. According to county figures, 2,020 residents have recovered from the illness.

At this point, most people contracting the virus are suffering from symptoms, McCully told commissioners.

The increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in recent weeks echoes how the pandemic has played out across the nation as summer fades. According to the Associated Press, about 400,000 new COVID-19 infections were recorded in all of June. August, by contrast, saw 4.2 million infections.

Hospital officials across the country reported reaching full capacity with rural areas especially hard hit. In nearby Idaho, where many residents have eschewed the readily available vaccines, state officials gave overwhelmed hospitals permission to triage patients and ration care.

In Lincoln County, the medical staff of Cabinet Peaks Medical Center issued a letter earlier this month describing the difficulty in securing beds at other facilities for severely ill patients.

“With this most recent rise of COVID-19 cases, our regional health care systems are becoming overwhelmed,” the letter reads. “The bottom line is, despite our best efforts, we are running out of resources to care for the people in this community.”

Commissioners told McCully and Kathi Hooper, director of the county health department, that there was not much they could do, but encouraged them to ask for help in confronting the surge.

County Commissioner Brent Teske (D-1) raised the possibility of reopening the county’s COVID-19 hotline, for example. County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) said he had been in contact with Gov. Greg Gianforte and could petition him for more rapid coronavirus test kits. McCully had reported that the department was going through tests as quickly as they came into them.

Much of the discussion focused around the county’s quarantine and contact tracing efforts. Hooper said the department’s small staff was mostly focused on assisting those infected.

Like other counties, local officials are offering exposed residents the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s quarantine recommendations, but not requiring them to take any special action following exposure.

“People are able to do whatever they want,” McCully said. “We hope they do the right thing.”

Letcher worried that residents were misunderstanding the directions, taking them as orders as opposed to advice. McCully told him that health officials were sticking to a script in their conversations with exposed people to remain explicitly clear.

County Commissioners Jerry Bennett (D-2) wondered about adopting a blunter message.

“It’s not mandatory, but don’t be stupid — If you’re sick, stay home,” he said.