BILLINGS — South-central Montana has become a hotspot for COVID.
“If you’re feeling sick, don’t go to work," said Dave Waggoner, the mayor of Laurel, who recently had COVID, on Tuesday. "It does spread."
According to the CDC, COVID-19 hospitalizations in Yellowstone County are rising.
This comes long after the pandemic when many have stopped carrying masks.
"I had been playing the odds long enough,” said Waggoner when asked if he had tested positive in the past.
Waggoner tested positive for COVID-19 around Thanksgiving. He says he first thought it was the flu until he was urged to take a test.
"Scratchy throat, head congestion. I didn’t get sick with nausea or anything. Didn’t lose my smell or taste. It just was a really bad flu it seemed like," Waggoner said. "My daughter works at the hospital and tested me and said, ‘You’re very positive.’ Then I started feeling worse, knowing that I had it."
He’s far from alone.
COVID hospitalizations at Billings hospitals are soaring. Billings Clinic told MTN News that 19 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Tuesday. Two months ago to the day, the hospital only had four patients hospitalized with the virus. St. Vincent Healthcare also told MTN it was seeing a rise.
"I would say we’ve seen about a 25% increase in the past week. Now, that’s 25% for Billings Clinic, I haven’t gotten the figures from St. Vincent, so it may potentially be a little higher than that,” said Neil Ku, an infectious disease specialist at Billings Clinic, on Tuesday. “Compared to this time last year and such, it’s still substantially lower. But we have been seeing a steady creep over the past several probably 2-3 months."
Ku said with it being respiratory season, residents should be wary of influenza, RSV, and COVID-19.
“The symptoms are now overlapping, meaning other respiratory infections that we commonly see this time of the year. That runny nose, cough, maybe some fever. Sore throat, things like that. And so there’s no specific constellation of symptoms that would specifically say, yes, this is more likely to be COVID-19," Ku said. "As a result of that, we advise the public to be tested for COVID-19 as well as influenza and RSV if possible just to help differentiate."
With the rise in cases, mask mandates have returned for some federal workers in Billings. TSA, the Department of the Interior, and the Social Security office are all under mandates.
But other federal buildings, like the BLM and federal courthouse, don’t have mask mandates—although security officers in the buildings tell MTN they’re expecting to be hit next.
Local healthcare workers are urging residents to vaccinate for both COVID and the flu.
“Get vaccinated. The vaccines have shown some really good efficacy. It’s not necessarily that it will prevent you from getting the illness, but it will make the illness milder,” Ku said. “With the cooler weather, as well as spending time with family, diseases are being passed among family members."
Waggoner urges those sick to stay home.
“Even if you think it’s the flu or a cold, don’t give your coworkers a cold. I didn’t want to give anybody what I had so I stayed away," Waggoner said. "So I just think that’s what you need to do, is take extra precautions and stay at home."
To learn more about the increase in COVID-19, click here.