HELENA — Montana public health leaders say they’re closely watching the growing number of COVID-19 cases linked to variants of the virus, but it isn’t changing their recommendations for the public.
The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) released an updated report July 7, outlining 646 COVID-19 cases that have been linked to specific “variants of interest” or “variants of concern.”
Those are strains believed to be transmitted more easily from person to person or more likely to lead to severe symptoms.
Magdalena Scott, supervisor of DPHHS’ Communicable Disease Epidemiology Section, says they began having COVID samples analyzed for variants about three months ago, working with partners like the CDC, the University of Montana and Montana State University. She says the most notable variants have been identified in multiple locations across Montana.
“We have a feeling that it’s circulating across the state,” Scott said.
A total of 457 cases – nearly three-quarters of the 646 identified in the report – have come from a single variant, known as B.1.1.7, or the “alpha” or “UK” variant. It has been linked to 32 hospitalizations and three deaths in Montana.
The alpha variant was the first main variant of concern identified in the state, and by far the most common nationwide until the last few weeks. Now, though, many states are reporting large surges in the “delta” variant. To date, Montana has only seen 33 confirmed cases of that variant, but Scott said the number has grown noticeably recently.
“We have tended to see that COVID arrived later in Montana, the variants were detected later, so it’s possible that delta is arriving later as well,” she said.
One statistic DPHHS is watching is the hospitalization rate. About 23% of patients identified to have the delta variant have been hospitalized, compared to 8% for the alpha variant. Scott did caution that these are based on small sample sizes, but said they will keep an eye on it.
Flathead County has had the most reported COVID cases tied to variants, with 87. It is followed by Missoula and Yellowstone Counties with 73 each, Cascade County with 68, Gallatin County with 52, Ravalli County with 45 and Lewis and Clark County with 43. Yellowstone County has had by far the most delta variant cases, with 14.
Scott said DPHHS doesn’t handle suspected cases from variants any differently than it does other COVID cases. In particular, they continue to point to the importance of vaccinations, noting that 95% of Montanans hospitalized for COVID from late April to early July had not received a vaccine.
“CDC’s research proves that getting the vaccine will reduce your risk of a more severe outcome, even if you do become ill,” she said.
Scott said DPHHS has saved some COVID test samples from last year. They hope to have some of those sequenced in the future so they can get a better understanding of variant trends over time.
You can find more COVID-19 data on DPHHS’ website.