HELENA — Leaders with the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) say they’re keeping watch as a growing number of COVID-19 cases in the state are linked to variants of the virus – particularly the delta variant.
“It’s the dominant strain around the US now, so we were expecting that this might come,” said Magdalena Scott, supervisor of DPHHS’ Communicable Disease Epidemiology Section.
The department released a new report Thursday, analyzing COVID cases in the state through July 30. In the most recent results, 87% of samples tested were from the Delta variant. Scott said public health leaders have reached a consensus that the delta variant is spread more easily than other COVID strains.
Variants, in general, remain a concern for DPHHS. The new report includes data on 358 people hospitalized with COVID-related illness between June 5 and July 30, as well as 41 COVID-related deaths from the same eight-week period.
While leaders have been able to sequence less than 10% of COVID samples from those people, all of the sequenced samples showed a “variant of concern” or “variant of interest.”
Scott said the spread of variants is another reason to encourage people to get vaccinated.
“The risk of a genetic change happens every time a virus is transmitted from one person to another, so the more circulation we see, the more chances that there could be some mutation that could cause a new variant,” she said. “So we really do want to try to limit our number of new cases and limit transmission, so that we reduce the risk of any changes in this virus.”
The average daily number of COVID-19 hospitalizations has risen to 95 – including a 44% increase from the week of July 23 to the week of July 30. The state is now seeing more than 1,000 new cases a week again.
Leaders believe those trends may be the reason behind a recent increase in the number of people getting the vaccine. Last week, just over 4,500 Montanans got their first dose of the vaccine – an 18% jump from the week before. First dose numbers had been fallen through June and the start of July.
The report shows 318 of the people hospitalized for COVID in the last eight weeks – nearly 90% – had not received a vaccine.
“We feel that vaccination is our best tool against COVID,” Scott said.
State data shows just over 900,000 vaccine doses have been administered in Montana. More than 445,000 Montanans have been fully vaccinated – about 48% of the eligible population. DPHHS says 74% of those over 60 – one of the most vulnerable groups – are fully vaccinated.
There are multiple reasons that not all COVID samples are tested for variants. The state public health laboratory in Helena can only sequence about 150 samples a week to determine which strain they come from.
Other partners, including the University of Montana, Montana State University and FYR Diagnostics can also do the testing. However, Scott said many samples don’t contain enough genetic material to tell what variant they’re from.
You can find the latest COVID-19 information from DPHHS on the department’s website.