Bozeman Deaconess Hospital Covid Testing Site

A long line of cars wait for a test at the COVID-19 testing site in the parking lot of Bozeman Deaconess Hospital on Tuesday. The line was so long that it overflowed from one parking lot across the street into another parking lot.

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Gallatin County added over 1,100 new COVID-19 cases on Monday and Tuesday combined.

Nearly 700 cases reported Monday and 440 on Tuesday set the record for the two highest daily case counts since the start of the pandemic.

Gallatin County and Montana are seeing an exponential rise in COVID-19 cases, as the omicron variant — a highly contagious strain of COVID-19 — sweeps the state.

For Gallatin County, cases have surged over the past few weeks. The 7-day rolling averages of 220 cases per 100,00 residents on Monday and the recent spike in cases rival the surge of winter 2020.

Statewide, the trend is similar.

During a press conference Tuesday, hosted by the Montana Medical Association, Dr. Maggie Cook-Shimanek, the acting state medical officer, said statewide cases increased 136% last week from the week prior.

On Friday, the state had 6,111 active cases. Over the weekend, Montana added nearly 2,000 new cases. By Tuesday, active cases in the state stood at 8,787.

The spike has doctors and public health officials from across the state worried. Hospitals may become strained, more people will likely be hospitalized and die and hospitalizations among children are on the rise.

Much of the exponential increase in cases is due to the omicron variant, said Dr. Neil Ku, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist with Billings Clinic.

The omicron variant is 200% more infectious than the delta variant, Ku said. According to DPHHS data, the omicron variant has now become the dominant strain in Montana, accounting for 84% of cases sequenced for variants.

Hospitalizations, which haven’t increased at quite the same rate as cases, will likely begin to increase significantly in the coming weeks, Ku said.

That worries hospital officials.

“This wave is different and has the potential to tax our hospitals more than any previous wave,” said Rich Rasmussen, president of the Montana Hospital Association.

Rasmussen said hospitals are dealing with acute staffing shortages, staff who are isolating or out sick and a higher baseline of patients than during previous spikes in cases.

According to data from DPHHS, hospitalizations rose about 17% last week from the prior week, with an average of 141 people hospitalized per day.

Without reprieve, Rasmussen said many hospitals will likely again consider returning to crisis or contingency standards of care — where care is rationed for some patients.

“When all hospitals are overwhelmed and the workers are stretched thin, care for everyone suffers,” Rasmussen said. “But there’s something we can do. We can all get vaccinated.”

Montana’s vaccination rate stood at 53% on Tuesday. Vaccination rates among children and teens are still the lowest, said Dr. John Cole, president of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Children aged 5 to 11 are 13% fully vaccinated, while children aged 12 to 17 have a vaccination rate of 38% statewide.

In an effort to get more children vaccinated amid a rise in pediatric hospitalizations due to COVID-19, several public health and medical associations in Montana have partnered to launch a campaign to inform parents about pediatric vaccines, Cole said.

Dubbed Your Best Shot MT, hosted by the Montana Medical Association, the campaign aims to answer parents’ questions about vaccines, connect parents with pediatricians and vaccines and provide accurate information on vaccines and pediatric COVID-19 cases.

“Although serious side effects and deaths from COVID-19 are rare in children, it is important to realize that any child can develop severe illness, long-term effects or death,” Cole said. “... Vaccination is the safest and most effective way to protect your child and family members from serious side effects or death from COVID-19.”

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Juliana Sukut can be reached at 582-2630 or jsukut@dailychronicle.com

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