By practicing COVID-19 safety, citizens can get back to normal sooner than later

Editor's Note: Numbers in this article have since changed and reflect the data as of July 28, 2020)

COVID-19 threatens to overwhelm healthcare systems across the country. Known safety measures that slow the spread are simple and allow hospitals to operate normally for everyone who may need assistance. For Montana, low infection numbers mean Montana’s ICU units will not be overrun.

As of this printing (7-28), Lake County has a reported 59 active cases of COVID-19 infections, echoing the cases in Missoula County. A short two months ago Lake County had five cases and held that number for three months. There are a number of possible reasons for the sudden rise in cases, namely the reopening of Montana’s economy, tourist season and increased social gatherings.

Across the state, the numbers have also exploded. By mid-May, there were less than 500 cases in total with over 300 recovered patients and less than 15 hospitalizations. That number is now over twice as high, with 62 hospitalizations and 51 deaths.

To slow the spread, Governor Bullock issued a state-wide mask mandate.  Walmart also declared that their stores would require masks.

The Center for Disease Control estimates that wearing masks reduces the spread of COVID-19 by 50 percent. Epidemiologists at the CDC believe that with mask wearing, social distancing and frequent hand washing, the US could control the coronavirus spread in four to eight weeks.

Proper mask wearing is also key. The mask should cover the nose and mouth snuggly with no openings on the side or bottom. Many who begrudgingly wear masks believe allowing the nose to peek out is acceptable; it is not as it still is allowing particles – possible infected microdroplets from other people’s breathing, talking or yelling – to enter the lungs where the virus is the most destructive.

The main concern about COVID-19 infections is not just the death rate which varies from 2-4 percent nationally. The worry is the strain it puts on healthcare systems. In March and April, New York’s infection and death rate was so high, bodies were being stored in freezer trucks because morgues could not keep up with the volume. Ventilators needed to help victims breathe were in short supply and personal protective equipment (PPE) was scarce. Hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients that anyone with a life-threatening condition like a heart attack or car wreck injuries had no place to go as Intensive Care Units (ICU) were filled. This should have been an eye-opener for the rest of the country and a cautionary tale of the severity of rising and out-of-control COVID-19 infections.

Instead, many states decided to open their economies despite having not controlled their infection rates and within weeks, the infections began rise and the deaths began to increase.

In Arizona, ICU beds are filled up and hospitals are shipping patients to New Mexico. Texas and Florida are requesting morgue trucks because they have run out of storage for bodies and are reaching maximum capacity of ICU beds. The US has 151,000 deaths and acclaimed virologist Dr. Anthony Fauci believes it will reach 200,000 by fall if the spread is not slowed.

Slowing and preventing the spread of COVID-19 is crucial to keeping the healthcare system functioning. As of this printing, 62 patients are hospitalized with COVID-19 issues and some of them may be in ICU. As the number of infected rises, so do hospitalizations and Montana does not have an unlimited amount of ICU beds. According to Kaiser Health News, Montana has 165 ICU beds in total. Missoula County has 32, Flathead County 22, Cascade County 20, Yellowstone County 41, and Silverbow County 11.

Lake County has zero ICU beds. Most of Montana’s rural counties lack ICU beds. Montana does have over 3,000 licensed hospital beds, but these do not have the equipment or staff to deal with patients who are suffering or dying from severe COVID-19 infection symptoms.

If there are nearly 61 current hospitalizations for the 1,320 active cases, it would stand to reason that 3,600 people would need to be infected for the healthcare system to feel the strain. As it stands, Montana is adding at least 500 new cases a week; Saturday, July 25 saw the state hit 224 cases in one day. Without preventative measures, Montana’s infections could increase exponentially and reach that threshold in over a month.

For everyday citizens, the minor (and I mean very minor) inconvenience of wearing a mask, social distancing and washing hands is paramount to slowing the spread of COVID-19 and keeping our healthcare system functioning. If everyone does it now, the sooner everyone can look forward to returning to normal.

The prevalence of COVID-19 infections is such that we all know people who either had it, have it or died from it.

Several members of the CSKT are infected and quarantined at home.

Recently, I learned my dad Tony M. Sandoval contracted COVID-19 in an elder home in New Mexico. He and others were infected by a staff member.

And earlier this month, my college and Facebook friend Rance Sneed succumbed to COVID-19 symptoms. He was 48.

Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Social distance.

Do your part to slow COVID-19.

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