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School and business closures extended until April 10; 52 positive COVID-19 cases in Montana
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School and business closures extended until April 10; 52 positive COVID-19 cases in Montana

Covid-19 tests

Health care workers file COVID-19 tests at a drive-up testing facility at St. Peter's Health on March 24 in Helena. 

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday extended his orders closing public K-12 schools and some businesses where people congregate until at least April 10, in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus in Montana.

Bullock issued his school closure order March 15, initially set to expire two weeks later, which would have been this Friday. On March 20 he issued another order shuttering bars, gyms, theaters and other businesses where people gather, and banned restaurants and breweries from dine-in scenarios while allowing delivery and to-go orders. He tied that order to the end date for the school closures, but acknowledged at the time it was likely that both would be extended.

"The obligation to control this spread is on each and every one of us, each and every day," Bullock said on a call with reporters Tuesday. " … We do continue to see an increase in cases each day, and that is expected."

Montana added seven additional known cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday morning, bringing the state's total number of cases to 52.

Gallatin County, which on Sunday said it had evidence of community spread of the coronavirus, now has 19 cases, more than double anywhere else in the state. Community spread means people who contracted the virus had no known contact with other sick people or close contacts with sick people.

Yellowstone County has eight cases, Missoula has six, Flathead four, Butte-Silver Bow, Cascade and Lewis and Clark each have three, Madison has two, and Jefferson, Ravalli, Broadwater and Roosevelt each have one.

On a call with reporters Tuesday, Bullock said even the April 10 timeline for the closure orders to lift could be shortened or lengthened, depending on how the virus continues to spread in Montana.

Public health officials nationwide have been urging people to take severe and swift action to limit the transmission of COVID-19, using dire language to describe potential outcomes if social distancing guidelines are not followed. While President Donald Trump, in conflict with those warnings, said Tuesday he “would love to have the country opened up, and just raring to go, by Easter,” it's fallen to governors and local governments to implement closure orders. 

By Tuesday, cities, counties and governors in an estimated 17 states have urged residents to stay at home or implemented large-scale shutdowns of nonessential businesses, which affects about 167 million people nationwide, according to a tally by the New York Times.

A model built by data scientists, engineers and designers working with epidemiologists, public health officials and political leaders to help understand how the COVID-19 pandemic will affect their region shows that Montana could reach a point of no return to prevent hospital overload sometime between April 14-19.

Bullock also issued a directive Tuesday prohibiting nonessential social and recreational gatherings of individuals outside a home or place of residence of greater than 10 people with a distance of at least 6 feet between individuals.

“This is a bit more restrictive (than his previous direction on gatherings) and we’re asking Montanans to comply,” Bullock said. Violations of that and the closure orders can be enforced by county attorneys.

Day cares are still open, Bullock said, because they serve a critical role in caring for the children of essential workers like health care providers, emergency responders and more.

As some businesses have closed and restaurants have reduced operations, many Montanans are finding themselves out of work. While Bullock eliminated the weeklong wait period for people to receive unemployment benefits, the state system to access them has been overwhelmed. Bullock said that since March 16, more than 15,000 people had filed claims.

While the chief justice of the state Supreme Court asked that nonviolent inmates be released from county jails, Bullock said Tuesday he has not made a determination about any changes at the state prison in Deer Lodge or other facilities like the prison in Shelby run by a contractor.

Montana has a primary election June 2, and several candidates have called for a vote-by-mail election. Bullock said Tuesday he would have a decision on any possible changes to that election soon, made under the power he has in the emergency declaration he issued March 12.

Bullock said the state is aggressively seeking to increase its critical inventory of supplies and that he got an additional 50,000 N-95 masks through a mutual aid agreement with North Dakota. Those will be distributed all across the state soon. He also issued orders Monday that should open up options for hospitals to increase their capacity in the event of a surge of patients.

“We’re doing everything we can in our capacity to prepare to take care of critically ill patients if we end up getting numerous COVID-19 patients in our hospitals and ensure there’s hospital space and supplies to respond,” Bullock said.

The state public health laboratory is also getting an additional 4,000 swabs for testing. Bullock said a week ago the state tried to order from a private supplier and that order was canceled because of overwhelming demand.

The reality of the situation, Bullock said, is that supply capacity depends on access to private supplies and if those hit a bottleneck the state must rely on the federal government honoring its requests for additional supplies.

Montana's federal delegation and attorney general also reported Trump announced the state will get an extension for when people will need REAL ID-compliant drivers licenses to be able to board airplanes or access federal facilities such as federal agency office buildings, federal courthouses, military bases and nuclear power plants. The deadline had been Oct. 1, and the new deadline will be announced in the future.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also announced Monday that the state's 14 community health centers will receive $810,430 to address screening and testing needs, get medical supplies and increase tele-medicine capacity. Last week both the state and federal government, as well as private insurance companies, took actions to increase access to tele-medicine options to ease access to care for people while keeping people who may spread the virus out of health care facilities. A list of funding by facility is attached to this story online.

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