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Montana’s medical community sounded an alarm Thursday, urging residents to get vaccinated and again wear masks in indoor public spaces to slow the spread of the increasingly concerning Delta variant of COVID-19. 

As of Thursday, there are more than 3,200 active COVID-19 cases in the state, including 499 new cases, a level of spread not seen since winter. In the last six weeks, the average daily caseload has increased six-fold and is on track to more than double in the next two weeks. Hospitalizations are reaching critical new highs alongside renewed community spread of the virus. The spikes are the result of the newer, more transmissible Delta variant and the state’s sluggish vaccination rate, experts said. As of Thursday, 49% of eligible people in the state are fully vaccinated, far short of the 70% to 80% medical experts say is needed to reach herd immunity

“With cases and hospitalizations increasing, we in the medical and nursing community of Montana want you to know that now is the time to act and step up our game collectively in preventing a worsening wave of COVID-19 here in Montana,” said Montana Medical Association President Dr. Pamela V. Cutler. “We see what’s happening in other portions of the U.S. 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. By working together, we can prepare and slow the spread.”

“There is a lot of frustration and fatigue, because all of this is preventable if people would just get vaccinated.”

Dr. James McKay, chief physician executive, Providence Montana

On Thursday afternoon, officials from numerous statewide medical associations held a virtual press conference urging all Montanans to wear masks inside again, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In recent weeks, states including Oregon and Washington have renewed mask mandates after letting them expire in the spring, when nationwide case numbers were on the decline. Gov. Greg Gianforte rescinded Montana’s mask mandate in February.

Medical officials said it’s especially important to resume mask wearing as the school year approaches. Children under 12 can not yet get vaccinated. Dr. Lauren Wilson, vice president of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said during Thursday’s press event that she’s worried the upcoming school year will be significantly disrupted if school districts don’t require children to wear masks. As the first day of school nears, many districts are taking divergent approaches, with some opting for mask mandates similar to last year and others leaving it up to students. Wilson said the latter is not a good option, citing the fact that more than 20,000 school children in Mississippi are currently in quarantine after just one week of school

“We can keep kids safe by using tried and true methods from last year,” she said. 

But perhaps more pressing than the coming school year is the challenge facing Montana hospitals, which are struggling to keep up with the caseload. As of Thursday, 200 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in the state, the most since January. On Tuesday, 42 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 in Flathead County alone, more than at any other time during the pandemic. Flathead County has 681 active cases on Thursday, more than any other county in the state. Hospitals in Cascade County were also pushed to the brink this week. Some hospitals have had to hold patients in emergency rooms while awaiting more appropriate space. Others have had to send patients out of state. 

Adding to the strain on available hospital beds is reduced staff, said Dr. James McKay, chief physician executive for Providence Montana, which oversees St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula and St. Joseph Medical Center in Polson. After an intense year of battling the pandemic, he said, many health care workers are exhausted, and some have left the profession altogether. He said the hospital in Missoula has a number of nursing positions open. 

As of Wednesday, St. Patrick had 23 patients with COVID-19, including seven in intensive care and two on ventilators. Almost none of them were vaccinated, according to McKay.

“There is a lot of frustration and fatigue, because all of this is preventable if people would just get vaccinated,” McKay said.

“I don’t think we’ve seen the worst of it yet,” he added. 

Flathead County has one of the lowest vaccination rates among the state’s large counties at 41%, compared to 62% in Missoula County, 56% in Lewis and Clark County, and 48% in Yellowstone County. But Flathead County Public Health Officer Joe Russell said he has seen an uptick in people wanting to get vaccinated. The county health department currently offers one vaccination clinic per week, and on Tuesday it delivered 126 shots, including 58 to unscheduled walk-ins. Russell said he doesn’t know whether the rising interest is because people are concerned about the new surge in cases, or they’re motivated to get vaccinated so they can travel (cross-border travel to Canada now requires vaccination). 

“To me, it really doesn’t matter what brings people in, so long as they’re getting vaccinated,” he said. 

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.