Masks Downtown

A man walks by a sign encouraging people to wear masks outside of Chalet Sports on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020, in downtown Bozeman.

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With COVID-19 cases climbing, Montana public health officials warned Tuesday that state medical resources are stretched thin and residents need to follow existing public health rules to limit the virus’ spread.

Montana reported 855 new cases on Tuesday with 350 hospitalizations. About one-third of the nearly 30,000 cases the state has had since the pandemic began were active. The state also had 305 deaths as of Tuesday.

Cases have been increasing since mid-September. Last week, Montana reported more than 4,000 new cases, a 17% increase over the previous week.

Gallatin County is contributing to the statewide increase, with a seven-day rolling average of about 84 new cases per day. The county reported 63 new cases on Tuesday for a total of 476 active cases with 15 hospitalizations. The county has had 2,537 residents recover from the virus and six die.

The statewide surge has stressed hospitals.

On Tuesday, two of Montana’s 10 largest hospitals — St. Peters Health in Helena and St. Vincent Health Care in Billings — were full.

Because the virus is widespread, health care workers and first responders are more frequently being exposed and contracting the disease, said Montana’s chief medical officer Dr. Greg Holzman during a press conference on Tuesday.

“When there is a lot of disease in the community, community members are likely to get ill or need to be quarantined,” he said. “This is true for our health care providers, as well. This can lead to staffing shortages, which can even decrease some of the medical centers’ capacity even further.”

State officials anticipate hospitals will likely continue to struggle in the coming weeks.

They are particularly worried about outbreaks in congregate living facilities, which have experienced a significant number of cases and deaths. This week, Gov. Steve Bullock deployed the National Guard to the Montana State Prison in response to an outbreak. The state is also continuing to monitor cases at long-term care and assisted living facilities.

“Even if a skilled nursing facility is doing everything right to protect their residents, if the virus is quite prevalent — there’s a lot of virus in the community — there’s a high likelihood that that virus will get into these congregate settings,” Holzman said.

Despite the increase in cases, Bullock said he doesn’t plan to implement new public health rules but is instead focused on the enforcement of existing measures.

Last Thursday, the state launched a website where Montanans can submit complaints about those violating public health orders. To date, the state has received about 1,300 complaints, said Jim Murphy, the state’s communicable disease and laboratory services division administrator.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services reviews the complaints and sends them on to local public health officials, who determine how to respond.

Last week, the state also filed temporary restraining orders against five businesses in Flathead County, a COVID-19 hotspot, that had repeatedly skirted public health rules.

“The hope is that all these cases are settled meaning that what these businesses choose to do is follow the directives along the way and then the legal actions will be able to be dropped,” Bullock said. “The goal certainly is not to punish any business. The goal is to keep employees and customers safe and healthy through this pandemic.”

He added the state may take legal action against other businesses but said there weren’t specific criteria for doing so.

Bullock also said the state would assist local public health departments with enforcement issues, if requested. He has made federal coronavirus relief money available to local and tribal governments for enforcement, although only a few counties have requested the money.

In Tuesday’s press call, Bullock announced that $5.5 million of the $65 million in federal relief he had allocated for schools was still available. He urged schools to apply for the money because it must be spent by Dec. 30.

Bullock said he had allocated about 97% of the $1.25 billion Montana received from the federal coronavirus relief package and has dispersed about 60%.

Republican politicians have criticized Bullock, a Democrat running for Senate against incumbent Sen. Steve Daines, for not distributing the money more quickly.

Bullock visited Bozeman on Tuesday to highlight the ways the state has used the federal relief money.

He spoke at the launch of the Cannery District mobile app, which was developed with a $25,000 business innovation grant, a new state program financed with the federal money. The app, which Alosant Software created, allows people to connect to the businesses in the Cannery District, a development near the intersection of East Oak Street and North Rouse Avenue.

Bullock also visited Granny’s Donuts to encourage Montana State University students to vote. The event was part of the Democrats’ statewide “Get Out the Vote” tour.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.