BILLINGS — What a difference a year makes in a pandemic. Or not?
In a lot of ways, that statement is true about COVID-19, as a majority of the Montana population is no longer donning a mask when entering a public place, and many people seem to go about their daily lives, as they did pre-COVID.
Just after the Fourth of July celebrations of 2020, COVID-19 cases started to take off. Today, local health experts fear round two is on its way.
Even after five years in the Billings Clinic ICU, nurse practitioner Lynn Gordy’s voice cracks when she talks about the calls she’s had to make over the last year and a half.
“Undoubtedly, the hardest part has been making phone calls to family members (who have never been allowed in the hospital room) to tell them that their family members are dying," she said.
It’s a part of her job that has been dwindling since the peak in November. But as of late, it's seeing an uptick.
“I'm doing it a little less often,” said Gordy, “but I'm still doing it. And the phone calls don't get easier.”
The latest data show Billings hospitals are averaging more than 21 COVID-19 in-patients a day, and about a third of those patients are in intensive care. Just two weeks ago, there were 10 COVID-19 patients in the clinic’s ICU.
“They're not casually ICU patients. These are really sick people that come and stay for a long time and have poor outcomes,” Gordy said.
Gordy added that patients are coming in younger, and getting sicker, sooner. “We've ranged in the last couple weeks anywhere from 30 to 70, you know, these are all not 70- and 80-year olds who are dying.”
Six Yellowstone County residents died in June, and so far in July, three more have died. Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton says with only 45% of the eligible residents vaccinated, the county is now averaging 15 to 16 new positive cases each day.
“When you think about that, 16 cases a day in a community our size doesn't seem like many,” said Felton, “but then you start doing the math." "So 16 cases a day is 100 cases a week is 5,000 cases a year, this thing is still here. It hasn't gone anywhere."
Felton said the COVID-19 variants are just getting stronger and will continue to mutate as long as residents refuse to vaccinate. Of the 33 Delta variant cases detected in Montana, 14 are in Yellowstone County.
“It's much more transmissible. People have gotten really sick with it. It does appear that for all the variants, the current vaccines do a good job of protecting against severe disease hospitalization and death. Not 100%, but better certainly than not getting vaccinated.”
Gordy and her team beg people to get their vaccine. She said she understands the distrust and hesitancy, but she also encourages people to reach out to their primary care provider, or someone they trust in health care.
“Get some real knowledge about that vaccine,” she said, “and if you're on the fence… do it.”
Knowing MTN News was coming for an interview, Gordy polled her team.
“I asked them, what would they say if they had a microphone and they could talk to all the citizens of Billings? What would they say? And resoundingly the answer was: one get your vaccine. Two, it's real, and it's still here and hard. This is hard," she said.