Public health officials give perspective on COVID-19 data

Posted at 12:30 PM, Nov 21, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-21 14:30:24-05

Since March there has been a lot of data presented regarding COVID, such as daily new cases, deaths, test positivity rate, and wastewater prevalence.

MTN News talked with Lewis & Clark Public Health (LCPH) to see what data people should be paying the most attention to, and how to put that data in perspective.

As of November 19, there have been 2,048 COVID cases confirmed in Lewis & Clark County since the pandemic began - about 3 percent of the population. Enough people to fill every seat of every theater at the Helena Cinemark.

County Health Officer Drenda Niemann says they always knew there was going to be cases, but a big concern right now is that 84 percent of all confirmed cases in the county have happened since the beginning of October. “The latest data shows that we’re on a really drastic spike, a really sharp increase in cases,” said Niemann.

The weekly case incidence shows how many COVID cases are confirmed through testing based on population size. It’s an indicator of how fast the virus is being spread in a community

Right now the weekly case incidence for Lewis & Clark County is around 57 per 10,000 people. That is 11 times higher than the national average of 5 per 10,000 people, and Montana is the 4th- highest in the country.

The majority of people that contract the disease are able to weather it at home. However, current data show 1 in 20 Montanans that get the virus have needed to be hospitalized.

There are risk factors that can increase the chance a person will need to be hospitalized, many of which are common conditions in Montana. An estimated 1 in 10 Montanans are living with diabetes, 1 in 4 are considered obese, and 1 in 6 are over the age of 65. Smoking and cancer will also increase the chance of hospitalization.

There are great odds that any given person that doesn’t have a risk factor either works with, are friends with, or live with someone that does.

“If we just look at the numbers, most people recover,” said Niemann. “However, it’s those that do just fine and recover just fine that aren’t taking precautions seriously and are exposing individuals that aren’t going to survive it. That’s the problem. So yes there are few hospitalizations and even fewer deaths, but what are we willing to accept as a community? How many souls are we okay with losing?”

COVID sign

Niemann says while the 20-29 age group represents the largest number of cases at 371 in the county, the number of cases they’re seeing across the board shows that there’s no one demographic to put fault on.

“We have to look at this as a community response,” said Niemann.”We have to see that if we don’t do this together, and we don’t protect each other, we’ll continue to see our hospitals strained and overrun and we’ll continue to lose our friends and families and neighbors.”

With increased spread of the virus in the community, more nurses and doctors are also getting the virus too. “They’re not experiencing spread within that setting. What's happening is people are exposed in the community and it’s impacting the hospital's ability to have the adequate staff to support this community,” said Niemann.

People living in assisted care facilities are generally considered to be the most vulnerable. Most of the long-term care facilities in Lewis & Clark County have seen at least one case, often due to staff getting the virus somewhere in the community.

“Those are the ones we are most trying to protect, but we can’t do that because the staff are being exposed within the community,” said Niemann. “What I do with my time and activities in this community absolutely impact our most vulnerable that live in those assisted living facilities right now.”

Niemann says there are some new bright spots too. Therapeutics for treating the virus have drastically improved, helping save lives and in some cases reducing the length of hospitalizations.

Two COVID-19 vaccines, the key to ending the pandemic, have been announced and are going to the FDA for approval. Realistically, it will still be many months before any vaccine is widely available for everyone.

586 Montanans have now died because of COVID-19 this year - that is 586 chairs at family tables that will be empty this holiday season. Wearing a mask, limiting interaction with people outside your home, washing your hands, and not going to work sick are the best tools the community has to prevent the spread of the virus, and prevent the number of empty chairs from growing.

As of Thursday, November 19, there have been 586 deaths in Montana due to COVID-19, an increase of four since yesterday.

There were 1,001 new cases reported within the last 24 hours, and there are currently 18,587 active cases. There has been a cumulative total of 52,707 cases; of those, 33,534 have recovered.

There are currently 482 people hospitalized; the cumulative number of hospitalizations is 2,221. There were 4,423 completed tests within the last 24 hours, bringing the cumulative total to 591,406.

The numbers above reflect the latest data from the Montana COVID website, along with supplemental data received from health departments in the following counties within the last 24 hours: Big Horn; Blaine; Cascade; Gallatin; Garfield; Glacier; Granite; Hill; Jefferson; Lake; Lincoln; Mineral; Missoula; Ravalli; Silver Bow; Sweet Grass.

Click here for the most recent list of new cases by age, gender, and county, as reported by the state.