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Doctors urge vaccines, masks to slow COVID surge in Montana

August 19, 2021 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — As cases of COVID-19 and related hospitalizations increase in Montana, medical leaders on Thursday asked residents to take actions to prevent the spread of the respiratory virus and help avoid the impacts on health care systems and schools seen in other states.

“We see what’s happening in other portions of the U.S.,” said Dr. Pamela Cutler, president of the Montana Medical Association, referring to overwhelmed health care systems in Mississippi and Louisiana and school closures in Texas and Kentucky due to COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Our statewide emergency rooms, businesses, and schools depend on each Montanan to follow the proven prevention methods that we know work — get vaccinated and wear a mask indoors,” Cutler said. “By working together, we can prepare and slow the spread.”

The messaging is not new, but the arrival of the delta variant is making it more urgent.

“We’ve seen a sixfold increase in average daily COVID cases since July 1 and the current trend will lead to a doubling in two weeks,” Dr. Greg Hanson, the chairman of the board of the Montana Hospital Association, said during a virtual news conference.

In Montana, 49% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated and booster shots are available for an estimated 22,000 residents with weakened immune systems.

A third injection for all people who received the two-dose Pfizer or Moderna shots will be available beginning the week of Sept. 20, to be given eight months after the person received their second dose. Studies are still being conducted on offering a booster to the single Johnson & Johnson dose.

Even people who are vaccinated can be infected with the delta variant, and while they may not get as sick, they can still spread it to others because it is more contagious. The vast majority of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Montana are unvaccinated, Hanson said.

A Yellowstone County woman in her 40s, who was unvaccinated and had no known underlying health conditions, died of COVID-19 this week, the county health department said.

“The pandemic has taken a toll on health care workers, making every part of their job and life more stressful and difficult” Hanson said. “We need to limit that stress so our caregivers can remain healthy, both physically and emotionally.”

Montana has reported an average of 341 cases of COVID-19 each day over the past week, compared to an average of 50 cases at the end of June. Two hundred people were hospitalized on Thursday, compared to an average of 54 in June.

Students have also struggled with the pandemic, they said.

The medical providers support mask requirements for schools so students can participate in in-person learning and not have to go through another year of distance learning and social isolation, said Heather Zaluski, a psychiatrist and medical director at Shodair Children’s Hospital.

The teen suicide rate in Montana increased 12% from 2019 to 2020, she said.

“Learning and growing academically, spending time with peers, having routine and structure and feeling safe in the world all promote healthy child development,” Zaluski said. “Conversely, being isolated from peers, worrying about the state of the world and losing loved ones and failing academically are all detrimental to children’s mental health.”

The University of Montana and Montana State University announced this week they are urging students to wear face coverings in indoor public places to help slow the spread of the coronavirus in the hopes that a mandate won’t be necessary.

Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte told the Montana State News Bureau last week that he would not implement a mask mandate as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations increased, but urged people to “consider getting vaccinated” and to “speak with their doctor about whether the vaccine is the right thing for them.”

“The governor has said talk to your doctor when you’re making these decisions,” Cutler said. “That’s us.”