U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams speaks at a press conference hosted by Gov. Steve Bullock at the state Capitol on Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020. Credit: Screenshot of livestream provided by Montana Public Affairs Network

Gov. Steve Bullock said Thursday that after a peak in November, health officials are noticing  encouraging decreases in new COVID-19 cases as the state prepares to receive its first doses of a vaccine. 

During a Thursday press conference with U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, Bullock said COVID-19 test positivity rates had dropped from a peak of about 20% in November to approximately 14% today. Some of the state’s larger counties, like Gallatin and Yellowstone, have also seen daily case count decreases of up to 38%, Bullock said.

The number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients has also been decreasing, he added. 

Credit: Montana governor's office

“We are seeing signs that give us some optimism,” Bullock said. “Looking at this data, it appears that Montanans are stepping up, taking the steps needed to mitigate the spread of this virus here in our state.”

The state reported 779 new cases on Thursday. Daily case numbers peaked on Nov. 13, when the state reported 1,638 new cases. Since the first confirmed Montana infections in March, 781 deaths have been attributed to the pandemic, with nearly 70,900 total cases, according to state data. Days after that November peak, Bullock announced additional health orders, including limitations on restaurant and bar capacity and hours, in addition to a mask mandate implemented in July

Bullock and Adams — who is in Montana to tour the Fort Peck Reservation and its testing efforts — said they believe more Montanans are wearing masks, and that those health orders had helped to arrest the upward trend of new cases. 

“The control measures we have in place and the statewide mask requirement, they do make a difference,” Bullock said. “And they will make a greater difference if closely followed by all Montanans.”

While Bullock said the state has not yet seen a large bump in cases attributable to Thanksgiving gatherings, Adams said the coming weeks may still register an increase. 

In Yellowstone County, Health Officer John Felton on Thursday shared similar news of decreasing case counts, noting that new daily cases per 100,000 people in the county — the state’s most populous — had decreased from a high of 105 before Thanksgiving to 69 last week. Still, Felton said, any new per-100,000 daily case counts above 25 are considered critical. 

“We are still at extreme risk of overwhelming our health care system and our public health system, even as we see these decreases,” he said in a separate Thursday press conference.  “We’re also just beginning to see infections that may have been acquired during the Thanksgiving holiday. I sincerely hope that our Yellowstone County friends have limited travel and celebrate the holiday safely so that we do not see a rise in infections, hospitalizations and deaths.”

The downward trend comes as the state prepares for a first round of vaccinations. The first 10,000 or so vaccines are expected to arrive next week, with more arriving the following week, Bullock said. But the first rounds, intended for frontline health care workers, will include only enough doses to vaccinate a fraction of the state’s health care workforce. Bullock said he does not have an estimate for when the vaccine will be more widely available in Montana. 

Until vaccines become readily available to all Montanans, Adams said, and especially with Christmas approaching, it’s important to continue to follow health mandates and recommendations like wearing a mask and limiting gatherings to household members. 

“Montanans are moving their numbers in the right direction. So I want you to be encouraged,” he said. “Continue to do the right thing. We’ll get to a vaccine. We’ll get through this together.”

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Chris covers Native American issues as a Report for America Corps member based in Billings. He also monitors the Montana Supreme Court, federal courts and criminal justice issues. Before joining MTFP in 2020, Chris most recently covered tribal affairs and Wyoming's Wind River Reservation for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 4, and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.