New year, new governor, new approach

Gianforte to rescind mask and other state mandates, but not in the immediate future
Thursday, January 7, 2021
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Gov. Greg Gianforte wasted no time in addressing the state’s most pressing issue —COVID-19’s physical, mental and financial impact on Montana. Gianforte held his first press conference just one day after taking office. (Photo from the Office of the Governor)

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Gov. Greg Gianforte will rescind the state’s mask and other COVID-19 mandates, but it won’t happen immediately.

At a press conference held Tuesday, the newly sworn-in governor announced such action would take place after two criteria are met:

1. An altered Phase 1B of vaccination distribution that now includes people ages 70 and older, and people ages 16 to 69 that have specific underlying medical conditions.

2. The drafting of legislation that would protect businesses, schools and churches that follow COVID-19 guidelines from lawsuits.

Gianforte stressed that his top priority is reducing COVID-19 deaths and getting vaccines out to the most vulnerable populations, along with protecting the economy.

He opened the press conference by saying COVID-19 had caused enormous negative impacts, costing more than 1,000 Montanan’s lives, creating mental health and crime issues and serious economic trouble in its wake.

When asked for a timeline on how soon to expect the mask mandate to be rescinded, Gianforte said he hoped it would be weeks and not months, and that some mandates would be rescinded while others modified.

What is now being referred to as “new guidance” is expected to be released this week.

On Wednesday, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services released an updated COVID-19 vaccination implementation plan. Vaccine distribution had already commenced two weeks ago under a different plan.

As of this past Monday, the state had received approximately 36,000 initial doses. To date, 25,000 of those doses have been administered to Phase 1A high-risk recipients such as healthcare providers, emergency crews and residents of longterm and assisted living care facilities.

Stillwater County Public Health Medical Director Dr. Cody White said Wednesday that local public health officials have been and will continue to place people on the waiting list based on the new tiers.

The new distribution plan is as follows:


-Frontline healthcare workers, directpatient contact or virus exposure healthcare workers and long-term care and assisted living facilities.


-Those 70 and older

-Native Americans or people of color who might be at higher risk

-People ages 16 to 69 with a high-risk medical condition. Qualifying medical conditions include cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, Down Syndrome, heart conditions, immunocompromised conditions, severe obesity, sickle cell disease, Type 1 and Type 2 Diabetes, any others that a medical provider determines. Gianforte said this group represents between 200,000 and 350,000 Montanans.


-Frontline essential workers.

-People 60 and older

-Those in congregate or correctional facilities

-Those aged 16 to 59 who are not included in 1B but have medical conditions that could elevate their risk of COVID-19 complications. Medical conditions include asthma (moderate to severe), cerebrovascular disease, Cystic fibrosis, hypertension, immunocompromised issues, neurological conditions (such as dementia), liver disease, being overweight, pulmonary fibrosis and Thalassemia.


All remaining Montanans ages 16 and older.

Vaccine availability will likely be an issue, with the state already anticipating the scenario of supply not being able to meet the demand.

Two vaccines — Pfizer and Moderna — have been approved for use by the Federal Food and Drug Administration under emergency rule.

Moderna-COVID-19 is what has been received for use locally.


As of Wednesday, Jan. 6, Stillwater County’s COVID-19 active case count was 17. There have been eight deaths and 536 recovered cases, for a total count of 561. Six residents are hospitalized. Using a population number of 9,698, Stillwater County’s positivity rate would be 5.6 percent.

The positivity rate has seen a gradual increase during the past six weeks, starting at 3.8 percent.


As of Wednesday, 1,015 Montanans had died from COVID-19 related issues, marking a 1.2 percent death rate of all confirmed cases. Sixty-five deaths occurred during the last seven days. The week prior, 78 deaths were reported over the course of seven days.

In a report from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Service’s (DPHHS) Office of Epidemiology and Scientific Support, provisional data “indicates” that COVID-19 related deaths will be the state’s fourth leading cause of death for 2020 – and possibly higher.

The report also notes that 68.6 percent of patients who died of COVID-19 related causes had at least one underlying medical condition. The most common underlying condition were cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and respiratory illnesses. The report also notes that Native Americans have been disproportionately affected by the virus, with an 11.6 times greater mortality rate than Caucasian Montanans.

It is also noted in the report that the DPHHS Office of Vital Record is using limited information as data comes from death certificates and are considered “incomplete and are subject to change.”


Hospitalizations numbers were down for the fourth consecutive week, sitting at 219 Wednesday. A total of 3,738 people have been hospitalized at some point, which is 4.4 percent of all confirmed cases. That percentage remains unchanged from last week.

Based on data from the last 193 days, Montana is now averaging 366 new cases per day. On Oct. 1, 2020, the average daily new case count was 108. On Nov. 2, 2020, that number was 203.7. And on Dec. 1 2020, the average daily new case number was 348.

In the last 27 days — Dec. 11 through Dec. 31 — that daily average new case number was 627. That is down from last week’s average daily new case number of 692.

The number of recovered cases versus active cases continues to stretch, with 4,931 and 78,114 respectively. This gap is the largest it has been in several weeks.


Statewide, 817,142 COVID-19 tests have now been administered, with 84,060 positive cases.

That is a 10.3 percent positivity rate on those tested. Using the population number of 1,068,771, the state positivity rate would be 7.9 percent, which is up just slightly from the previous week.

There were 602 new cases reported Wednesday and 1,190 tests administered on that day as well.


As of Jan. 6, the state’s COVID-19 Hospital Occupancy and Capacity Status report showed of the largest 10 hospitals in Montana, Benefis Hospitals was at more than 90 percent bed capacity. Five were between 70 percent and 90 percent bed capacity, including St. Vincent Health Care, Billings Clinic, Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, St. Peters Health and St. James Healthcare.

Four were between 70 percent and 90 percent bed capacity — Billings Clinic, St. Peters Hospitals, Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital and St. Vincent Health Care. The remaining four were below 70 percent bed capacity.

Of the state’s four specialty hospitals, The Rehabilitation Hospital of Montana and Advanced Care Hospital of Montana (both in Billings) were above 90 percent bed capacity. Shodair Children’s Hospital was between 70 percent and 90 percent and the Great Falls Clinic Hospital was less than 70 percent.

Of the 50 critical access hospitals, Prairie Community Hospital and Sidney Health Center were at more than 90 percent capacity, according to the report.


Information on public schools and universities had not been updated since Dec. 16, 2020, due to the Christmas break.


National numbers from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) on Wednesday showed a total of 21,096,346 COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and 358,279 deaths. That is a 1.7 percent death rate in confirmed cases — the same as last week. Using national population numbers — which range from 328,239,523 to 331,117,471 — the national positivity rate for those tested is approximately 6.4 percent, which is up from 6 percent last week and 5.6 percent two weeks ago.

Sources for the above information include the CDC, Stillwater Community Health, the Governor’s Coronavirus Task Force and the U.S. Census Bureau.