BILLINGS — Compared to the pandemic’s peak in November 2020, COVID-19 case counts for Yellowstone County were looking much better in February, with 15 to 20 new cases per day, compared to hundreds of new cases per day four months ago, said Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton at a press conference Wednesday.
Felton provided a look back as Yellowstone County approaches one year since the first county resident became infected with COVID-19. Felton said about 16,500 county residents have become infected with COVID-19 as of Wednesday, 1,074 have been hospitalized. 239 county residents have died from COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to the state tracking map.
If you assume each infected person had four close contacts, that means about 82,000 Yellowstone County residents, or about half of the county population, were placed into two-week quarantine at some point in the past year.
"No other disease has ever affected our community more than COVID-19," Felton said.
While the numbers are looking better since the peak, Felton said the disease is still circulating in the community. He said COVID-19 has killed 34 Yellowstone County residents since January 2021.
“Each of these deaths are deeply felt. These are not abstract numbers," Felton said.
Felson said the burden on the health care system and contact tracing staff has been reduced significantly since the peak in November, when Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare were adding extra beds for COVID-19 patients and calling in out-of-state staff to help.
“Never before had we needed to track hundreds of new communicable disease cases at the same time week after week after week. Fortunately, now we’re trending in the right direction with the number of cases and hospitalizations decreasing. However, this virus is still circulating. It’s still making people sick," Felton said.
On another note, the supply of COVID-19 vaccine is steadily increasing in the county, Felton said. The newest vaccine to receive emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration is one made by Johnson and Johnson, which only requires one dose to achieve an immune response.
Felton said the county received 1,000 doses of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine over this week and last week. Those doses are being reserved for people who meet eligibility requirements of 1B+, are homebound, living in senior apartments, homeless, incarcerated or anyone else who would have a hard time getting a second dose.
As of Wednesday, Felton said there have been 47,504 doses of vaccine given to Yellowstone County residents, and so far 19,000 have been fully vaccinated. Between the overlap of people who have had the virus and people who've been vaccinated, it's estimated about 20 percent of the county population over age 15 are "presumptively immune," Felton said.
While the vaccine allocation for Yellowstone County is generally increasing, Felton said it's still week-to-week on how many doses, and of which manufacturer's vaccine will arrive to the county.
Felton also noted new Centers for Disease Control guidance on what precautions people should take when interacting with others if they have been fully vaccinated. To be considered fully vaccinated, a person must have had their final dose two weeks prior.
“These new CDC guidelines are definitely good news for the nearly 20,000 residents of Yellowstone County who are now fully vaccinated. The CDC recommends fewer restrictions for fully vaccinated people," Felton said.
According to the CDC, fully vaccinated people can visit with other fully vaccinated people indoors without masks or physical distancing. Fully vaccinated people can visit with unvaccinated people from a single household who are at low risk for a severe case of COVID-19. Fully vaccinated people also don't need to quarantine if they are exposed to COVID-19 as long as they aren't showing symptoms.
“What this really means for some of us who are grandparents, is that fully vaccinated grandparents can now visit with their grandkids, even if those grandkids aren’t vaccinated," Felton said.
The Yellowstone County testing site at 2173 Overland Ave. now has the capability to perform rapid molecular tests for COVID-19 at a cost of $111, Felton said. The rapid molecular test is one often required of travelers entering other states. Felton said RiverStone's test is good for every state in the U.S. except for Hawaii.
The test site is still offering free rapid testing to county residents every week day from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Looking back on the year fraught by the COVID-19 pandemic, Felton said a major theme has been the scientific community learning as it went.
“There’s been some criticism of healthcare and public health for changing guidance. First people said don’t wear the masks, then they said to wear the masks. I think we have to understand that is what science does. Science learns from experience. A year ago today, we had zero experience with COVID-19 in Montana and Yellowstone County," Felton said.
Overall, Felton said he was proud of how the community came together to mount a response to the virus. The Unified Health Command, made up of Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services, Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Health Care and RiverStone Health, has been stood up now for a year. Usually, an emergency incident command is usually only stood up for six months maximum to deal with traditional disasters like fire or flood, Felton said.
“I’m pretty confident that once every 100 years is plenty for a pandemic," Felton said.
It seems like things are trending back to what normal life looked like before the pandemic. But Felton still urged caution, because the county will likely be dealing with COVID-19 far into the future due to its inability to be eradicated.
"We'll get back to what feels normal. I don't think it will be quite what it was. I think that's true in any sort of really significant event. Life after a war is different than it was before a war, just because of what people have been through. I'm not saying that COVID-19 is a war, but it's impacting us. It's impacted our sense of how we interact with people and where we go and what we do. Society will shift a little bit. I think we'll adapt to whatever the new normal is and someday it will just be the normal. I think there will be changes. It's human nature," Felton said.
Watch the full press conference below: