Bozeman Health

An ambulance pulls into the ambulance entrance of the Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2020.

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With coronavirus case counts in Gallatin County already at record-high levels, health officials are warning the Halloween weekend could lead to an unbearable surge in cases.

With the holiday lending itself to large, indoor parties, and the fact that this year Oct. 31 is falling on a Saturday, Gallatin City-County health officer Matt Kelley said there is a potential for a surge more severe than the spike in cases seen after July 4.

Gallatin County is in a much different place now than it was in early July. Cases have been steadily increasing since mid-September, and more than 600 cases of the county’s 3,196 total cases since the pandemic began were recorded in the past week. Statewide, 891 new cases were reported Thursday, for a total of 30,853. Gallatin County reported 102 new cases and the county’s seventh coronavirus-related death on Thursday.

“We’re starting from a point where we’re already in a surge, so a spike now could really have a huge negative impact on hospitals and nursing homes,” Kelley said. “We’re seeing dramatic growth in the number of cases and we know the pattern where we see a high number of cases … a couple weeks later we’ll see hospitalizations rise, and we’ll see deaths follow that. That’s a pattern we’ve seen across the country.”

Gallatin County’s future, Kelley said, may be similar to the situation in Yellowstone County and elsewhere across Montana and in the Dakotas where case increases have stressed hospitals.

According to data from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, both St. Peters Health and Helena and St. Vincent Health Care in Billings were over 90% full as of Wednesday.

Kelley said there is reason to learn from the dire situations in other areas of the state and country.

“This is happening all around us and there’s not much reason to think it can’t or won’t happen here,” Kelley said.

Dr. Eric Lowe, medical director of the emergency department at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, said surging case numbers in the county have resulted in increased hospitalizations — the health department reported 15 current COVID-19 hospitalizations Thursday. Lowe said while they still have the capacity to treat both COVID and non-COVID patients, the hospital’s capacity can change rapidly.

Staffing is a concern, Lowe said.

“As cases go up in the community, all of our staff are members of our local communities and high levels of community illness can still impact our workforce and we need that workforce,” Lowe said. “It doesn’t matter how many rooms and beds we have if we don’t have the workforce to be able to staff the rooms.”

During a press conference Thursday, Gov. Steve Bullock said he doesn’t intend on implementing statewide restrictions for Halloween weekend, but urged people to follow safety recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the state health department.

Kelley urged those going trick or treating to wear masks, bring hand sanitizer, avoid large groups and limit the number of houses they go to. Setting aside any collected candy for a few days can help reduce the chance of virus spread, Kelley said. (He did recommend keeping a stash at home to not deny kids their post- Trick-or-Treat sugar rush).

Anyone who is sick or who is quarantining should not give out candy, Kelley said, and should consider putting a sign on their house explaining why.

Those who are able to give out candy should wear a mask and try to distribute it in a way so that kids aren’t dipping their hands into the same bowl.

Stacey Anderson, state lead communicable disease epidemiologist, said during a press conference earlier this week that costume masks are not suitable replacements for face masks. Anderson urged people to be creative, and suggested people hold virtual gatherings via Zoom rather than attending in-person parties.

While trick or treating carries some risk, the most concerning thing for the Halloween weekend, Kelley said, is parties. With colder weather, parties are likely to be indoors, where the virus can spread more easily. And alcohol can lower inhibitions, Kelley said, making people more likely to throw caution to the wind when it comes to wearing a mask or social distancing.

The county is already seeing rapid case increases in those ages 18 to 30, Kelley said, and since young people are more likely than other age groups to throw parties, there is potential for significant case spread.

The health department is concerned for more than just a post-Halloween surge. With Thanksgiving around the corner, Kelley said decisions people make now can impact the safety of family gatherings for that holiday.

“We want people to think about how the things they are doing now and over the next 10 to 14 days are really going to impact what they bring home to Thanksgiving,” Kelley said. “Is the party on Halloween worth making the people you care about sick?”

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.