Over the last few months, and especially the last four weeks in Montana, our world has been turned upside down by a virus. Now there are confirmed cases of COVID-19 in counties across Montana. Even though we live in a rural state with lots of space, the virus is here and presents a very real health threat to our communities and our loved ones.
As of early April, there were more than one million confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide and more than 50,000 deaths. Montana has hundreds of confirmed cases, and that number grows every day.
COVID-19 is a novel virus, which means that while it resembles the SARS virus that emerged in 2003, it is new and different enough that we are still learning about how it spreads and the symptoms it causes. We don’t have established treatments for it or vaccines to prevent it. Right now, the best we can do is to slow the spread of the virus while scientists scramble to learn more about it. The term “flattening the curve” has become part of our vocabulary and it is important to understand what that means, why we need to do it, and how we do it.
Flattening the curve refers to slowing the rate of spread of the virus in the community. Why do we need to do that? We need to buy time. We need to reduce the number of people who are critically ill at any one time so our hospitals aren’t overwhelmed and run out of ventilators and other equipment needed to care for the most ill. We need time to get more protective equipment for front line staff taking care of the patients who are ill so they don’t get the virus themselves and take it home to their families. We need time to understand how the virus behaves and to develop treatments that help fight the effects of the illness. We need time to develop a vaccine to prevent the infection because it isn’t just going to go away.
How do we flatten the curve as a community and how can people, especially those most vulnerable to serious consequences of the infection (older people and those with medical conditions that compromise their ability to fight infection) avoid becoming infected? We know the virus is spread by respiratory droplets so there is the risk of airborne transmission if you are close to someone. Staying at least six feet away from someone, a practice called social distancing, can reduce spread through the air. We also know that the virus is spread by droplets on surfaces, so good handwashing with soap and water works very well to reduce transmission. Avoid touching your face with unwashed hands to reduce the risk of infecting yourself if you have unknowingly come in contact with the virus.
Importantly, stay at home! If you can have someone bring you groceries and other essentials, please do. If you have to go out, please apply the social distancing principles such as avoiding crowded places and going to stores when they aren’t as busy. Many stores have free online ordering services and will bring your order to your car in the parking lot. Other places will deliver your food to your home for a small fee and leave it outside your door. Drive-through pharmacy windows will allow you to pick up medication without having to leave your car.
If you do have respiratory symptoms, it is especially important that you stay at home to avoid spread of illness, even if you don’t think you’ve been exposed to COVID-19. We have cases of the virus in rural parts of our state, so no one is without risk. Infected individuals are most contagious when they have symptoms (most common are fever, cough, body aches and shortness of breath), but we also know that carriers can shed the virus and infect others before they have symptoms.
During these stressful times, it is important to stay connected with your family and friends, but please do so virtually as much as possible. As the weather gets nicer, you can certainly be outside and enjoy walks and time in the yard, but everyone should limit the number of people (less than 10) at any gathering, and certainly try to avoid more confined spaces. Even in rural communities, gas stations, parks, and the community store can be places where the virus gets spread if people are not careful about handwashing and distancing themselves. It’s important to stay connected, though, so make phone calls, use FaceTime and other platforms where you can video chat.
The Unified Health Command – made up of Billings Clinic, RiverStone Health, St. Vincent Healthcare and Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services – is working hard to continue coordinating a community response while protecting the people who live in our area. They also need all of our help
Please remember that these measures not only help us protect ourselves, they help protect our communities and our loved ones. We are fortunate to live in a place with wide open spaces and already large distances between us, but we are still vulnerable and it is important that we come together as Montanans to take care of each other, as we do so well in times of good fortune and in times of crisis.
We have one simple ask of everybody: Be a health hero. Stay home, stop the spread, save lives.
If you have respiratory illness symptoms, remember to stay home. You can call the Billings Clinic Healthline at (406) 255-8400 for more information about if you should be tested for COVID-19. You can also learn more at the Billings Clinic COVID-19 page.