BILLINGS — On Wednesday, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton advised people not to attend large New Year's Eve gatherings if the county is to keep its downward trend of COVID-19 case counts into the new year.
"These next two weeks are going to be really critical. As we come through basically 10 days of holidays, if we’re going to have trouble with new cases resulting from that, we’re going to see them in the middle of January," Felton said.
December has been a relatively good month for Yellowstone County when it comes to COVID-19 case counts. The county saw it's peak in November, with some weeks seeing over 100 new cases per day per 100,000 population, Felton said.
At the end of Christmas week, the county saw about two thirds fewer new cases than the November peak. For that week, Felton said there were about 32 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population in the county.
"We’ve seen our hospitalization numbers, which peaked out at that same period around 150 patients, less than half that. That’s what’s at risk. The progress that we’ve made can very quickly turn around when we put people in high-risk environments, which is really where you compress a lot of people in a small space," Felton said.
Felton offered the same advice that the community has been hearing for the past nine months: wash your hands, wear your mask, avoid large gatherings and practice social distancing to prevent disease spread. And if you celebrate the New Year, keep the gathering small, preferably with only household members.
"Its been such a strange year, we might as well end it on a strange note. There’s just too much risk associated with large gatherings. The progress that we’ve made in terms of reduced case counts, reduced burden on the hospitals, reduced numbers of deaths, that is all at risk if we don’t be careful over the holiday period," Felton said.
Its been a long haul for everyone this year, with many anxiously awaiting 2020 to be in the past. Its been a long, strange year for area businesses like bars, restaurants and retail shops, with their owners having to adjust to new health regulations.
Stephen Hindman, owner of Stacked A Montana Grill, in downtown Billings is one of the restaurateurs who has seen the effects of the regulations. Capacity at his restaurant that can usually serve 100 has been reduced to less than half and staff have upped sanitation procedures with tables, menus and food.
“It’s not as bad as it could be. I mean, certainly we all have struggles as restaurants and bars and small businesses with social distancing and trying to fit as many people as we can into a small space and still work really hard to stay socially distanced," Hindman said.
Hindman said a health department staff member stopped by a few weeks ago and saw what Stacked staff were following appropriate COVID-19 procedures.
“The health department stopped by and thanked us for doing a good job just the other week. That feels good. It still doesn’t correct the situation, but we’re trying to do the right things for the right reasons. The right reason is not just to stay open, but to keep people healthy and to keep our customers coming in," Hindman said.
Hindman said the community has supported Stacked through the pandemic by purchasing dine-in, take-out and delivery meals. Business hasn't been easy over the past year, but Hindman said he's hopeful for the future.
"It’s still a strain on the business. It’s still a strain on keeping people employed, still paying the bills to keep the doors open. We don’t plan on going anywhere anytime soon, but we’re hoping that things can improve and maybe by us doing the right things, it will help and improve sooner," Hindman said.
Community exposure to COVID-19 combined with widespread community vaccination is what we're all waiting on to get back to normal, Felton said. Yellowstone County is still a long way away from being at the point where the population could be considered well-protected from the disease, Felton said.
"We have a long ways to go. I know people want it to be over and they want to get back to life as it was. I honestly and truly believe that we will get there. We’re just not there yet," Felton said.
Now, it's a game of numbers. There are about 160,000 residents of Yellowstone County. Felton estimated about 2,000 people have received the vaccine and about 13,000 people have had COVID-19. That leaves about 145,000 people to receive a COVID-19 vaccine before the population is protected.
The tricky part is that no one in local or state government has a certain answer on when another round of vaccines will be delivered or how many will be in a shipment. A new timeline released by the Governor's office Wednesday stated vaccines are expected to be available to all Montanans by early summer 2021.
"We just need to continue to be careful and do the right things. That way we keep our businesses open, we keep our schools open, we keep people safe and we get away from what our organization has been doing virtually every day through November and the first part of December, which is tell the community that someone else died as a result of COVID-19," Felton said.