As a COVID-19 case surge driven mostly by the unvaccinated overwhelms hospitals, lawmakers Wednesday pressed Montana’s health department director about the state’s response to the pandemic.
Following a question from Democratic state Rep. Danny Tenenbaum, of Missoula, about why Montana led the nation at one point recently for the percentage increase in cases per capita, Department of Public Health and Human Services Director Adam Meier attributed it to previously low case growth making the spike more dramatic and lagging vaccination rates.
“The latter would be the primary driver because the vaccine is the most effective way to prevent an infection or at least hospitalizations and severe consequences out of COVID,” Meier said during an interim legislative meeting.
Democratic lawmakers questioned Meier about how the state was working to slow the trajectory of case growth, while one Republican on the committee questioned if the situation was that dire.
A readout from the governor’s COVID-19 briefing Wednesday said cases increased 44% from the week prior, with 6,309 new cases added over the week ending Sept. 17. Hospitalizations were also up 18% and patients hospitalized with COVID-19 each day averaged 358. There were nearly 400 people in hospitals statewide Wednesday.
Over the week ending Sept. 17, 48 Montanans died; 40 of those were unvaccinated, according to the briefing. The unvaccinated account for 87% of hospitalizations and 79% of deaths reported in the state from April 1 to Sept. 17, according to the briefing.
Meier told lawmakers the state’s response to the recent surge is two-pronged. The first focus, he said, is short-term and involves things like “leveraging the monoclonal antibody supply that we have because that does prevent hospitalizations” and helping hospitals with staffing issues through sending out members of the Montana National Guard. The state Wednesday sent 20 more Guard members, this time to Benefis Health System in Great Falls, for a total of 107 members at hospitals statewide.
Meier also said the Department of Labor and Industry is working to loosen licensing requirements to aid in staffing numbers.
“We're working to identify every resource we can,” Meier said.
The state is now receiving a rationed supply of monoclonal antibody treatment, Meier said. The readout from Gov. Greg Gianforte’s briefing Wednesday said the state received 1,200 doses Tuesday, which it is allocating to communities.
For the long-term, Meier said, the state is “continuing to beat the drum on why it's important to get vaccinated.”
The state is also moving into its third phase of public service announcements advocating vaccination, Meier told lawmakers. By Wednesday, 52% of the state’s eligible population was vaccinated.
“Having people hear from other Montanans who maybe had the same concerns (in getting vaccinated) that they had and overcame those concerns or maybe had those concerns but got really, really sick, and spent significant time in the hospital and … are in recovery now, hearing that message I think can help resonate with people,” Meier said.
“ … That of course doesn't solve for right now,” Meier continued, “But it does help long-term in terms of preventing the continued spread of COVID-19."
There were 9,731 vaccine doses given during the week that ended Sept. 17, with 4,814 people getting their second dose. That number marked a 10% increase in vaccine doses over the prior week.
During Wednesday's meeting Rep. Jane Gillette, a Republican from Bozeman, disputed concern over the jump in new cases.
“I’m not sure I would feel really dismayed about the rate increase when you just think of it really mathematically,” Gillette said. “ … Just put in simple terms, if you had two (cases) at one point and you increased to four, you’d increase by 50%, so you just kind of have to put it in ... more broad terms and not ... lose the other data. So, for instance, when we look at the number of COVID cases per 100,000, we're pretty much just middle of the pack normal.”
While the U.S. average of new cases per 100,000 people was 40 on Wednesday, according to data compiled by the New York Times, it was 85 in Montana. That made the state sixth-worst in the nation.
Meier responded that while Montana was “middle of the road” in terms of cases, “the most concerning thing right now is really the utilization of resources, especially at our hospitals.”
Meier said the more-contagious delta variant is making patients sicker and that younger people are falling ill.
“Being younger, being able to fight longer, the ICU capacity that we're seeing is not turning over as quickly,” Meier said. “People either recovered before quicker or sometimes passed on. ... Some of these younger folks … they're fighting … two or three or four weeks, so the bed capacity in our ICU has actually been taken up longer as well.”
Earlier this year, the GOP-majority state Legislature passed the only law in the country that bans employers from requiring their employees to get vaccinated, a law that extends to places like hospitals and nursing homes. However, a carve-out in the law says long-term care facilities could require vaccination if it became a condition of getting federal funding, and about a month ago the Biden administration said it would issue a rule in September requiring those vaccinations as a condition of receiving federal money.
During a press call Wednesday, Bozeman Health said when it creates contracts for staff that it brings in to help with shortages, it has requested the staffing agencies it works with to send only vaccinated staff for consideration.
“According to the current Legislature we cannot (require vaccination of employees). However, from a contractual standpoint, there are ways for us to vet and evaluate and make additional requests and make additional decisions on who we contract with,” said Bozeman Health’s incident command leader Kallie Kujawa.