HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana reached a record number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday while one district moved its middle and high school classes to virtual learning to slow the spread of the respiratory virus among students, few of whom follow the school's mask mandate, officials said.
Montana reported 510 COVID-19 hospitalizations Wednesday, according to state health officials. The previous high of 506 hospitalizations was recorded on Nov. 20, 2020, before any vaccines were available.
The hospitalization surge in Montana comes as most of the United States is seeing encouraging signs: New cases per day in the U.S. have dropped below 100,000 on average for the first time in over two months, and the 1,600 deaths per day is down from more than 2,000 three weeks ago.
Still, health authorities are bracing for another possible surge as cold weather drives more people indoors.
“The best path forward is for Montanans to talk to their trusted, personal health care provider and get vaccinated," Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a statement. "Though we will not mandate them, the vaccines are safe, they work, and they save lives.”
During the eight weeks between Aug. 7 and Oct. 1, 83% of the 1,810 people who were hospitalized in Montana and 80% of the 251 people who died were not vaccinated, the state health department said.
Over 495,000 Montana residents, 54% of those eligible, are fully immunized, state officials said.
In Livingston, the school board voted Tuesday to move 740 middle and high school students to remote learning from Wednesday until Oct. 25, because there are 17 cases of COVID-19 each at Park High School and Sleeping Giant Middle School. Another six staff have COVID-19, according to the school's dashboard.
The county health officer, Lauren Desnick, said Tuesday that the new cases at the schools were associated with well over 100 close contacts and that it was “humanly impossible” for the county's two full-time contact tracers to reach everyone.
And those they reach may not follow quarantine recommendations, she said.
“What we’re seeing is somewhere between 25% to 50% of the people we talk to are saying ... 'We’ll think about it,'" Desnick said during Tuesday's school board meeting, the Livingston Enterprise reported.
School board member Dan Vermillion said he visited the middle and high schools on Tuesday and saw just a small fraction of students wearing masks, despite the district’s universal mask requirement.
The mask requirement is not easily enforceable, Superintendent Lynne Scalia said Wednesday.
Due to changes made by the Republican-controlled 2021 Legislature, local health departments cannot put any health-related mandates in place without the approval of elected officials. And any mandates that cities or counties enact that are more strict than those in place statewide could lead to the loss of federal pandemic relief funds for infrastructure projects. The state has no pandemic related mandates in place.
Another law was changed earlier this year to say criminal trespassing does not apply to someone who is not wearing a face covering or is not vaccinated to be in a publicly owned place where proof of vaccination or use of facial coverings is required, Scalia said.
Scalia said in order to enforce the district’s mask mandate, it would have to suspend students from school and the district doesn’t want to do that.
There is nearly 100% compliance with the mask mandate in Livingston's elementary schools, Scalia said, and there are just two cases from grades kindergarten through fifth. Those students will continue in-person learning.
In Missoula County, the school board voted Tuesday to extend the district's mask mandate for another four weeks while also deciding to set metrics that would allow the district's COVID-19 task force to lift the mandate. The board will have to approve the metrics.