Two safe and effective vaccines appear poised for release soon. That bolsters hope that there is light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel, Gov. Steve Bullock said Tuesday afternoon, Nov. 17 during a COVID-19 update.
But, in the meantime, all the present difficulties still confront Montanans. Health care workers are exhausted, and some are having to work despite being sick with COVID-19.
Hospitals are running out of room. Not just for COVID-19 patients, but for anyone at all. Ambulances have already been turned away from some facilities, including Billings Clinic, according to some media reports, and at least four hospitals are listed as over capacity.
“Lives are at stake in what we each do individually between now and the widespread availability of these vaccines,” Bullock said. “We must find a way collectively, as Montanans to make it through these coming winter months.”
COVID-19 cases have risen 30 percent or so in the last couple of weeks, Bullock said, and the risk of a major breech in state’s health care system is growing, right alongside the spike.
New restrictions announced
The situation has prompted the governor to extend a statewide mask directive to all counties in the state, as well as to reduce the allowed occupancy of restaurants, bars and breweries to no more than 50 percent of normal operating capacity.
The establishments will need to limit the number at each table to no more than six people, and have all tables at least 6 feet apart between groups. They will also need to close by 10 p.m., but they can re-open by 4 a.m. the next morning.
Public gatherings, meanwhile, are to be restricted to no more than 25 individuals where it is not possible to practice social distancing, or where social distancing is not being observed.
Anyone planning an event greater than 25 must consult with the local public health department to implement adequate social distancing rules.
Existing directives for public and private K through 12 schools remain the same, and the new restrictions are not meant to further restrict houses of worship, Bullock added.
“I urge Montanans in the strongest terms to limit their involvement in any personal gatherings of 15 or more people, including private gatherings inside a home,” he said. “Such gatherings are a significant contribution to the spread of this virus. These are restrictions I don’t take lightly. Yet they are a necessity.”
Bullock acknowledged everyone is tired of the virus and fed up with the restrictions that have come with it.
“But we all have to collectively recognize that this virus won’t stop spreading through our community any time soon, unless we take active steps to stop its spread,” he said. “The responsibility for doing this rests with each and everyone of us.”
Relief funds coming too
Along with the restrictions, Bullock announced he is pooling together remaining relief funds to provide new allocations to support businesses and individuals.
The program will have $75 million to help businesses purchase inventory, pay employees and keep the lights on. Those companies that already received a grant will be able to access an additional payment, too. Emails will go out soon to those businesses with details on how to access that.
The funding will require businesses to agree to comply with COVID-19 precautions including requiring masks in the establishment, and maintaining social distancing.
In addition, Bullock said, an interim pandemic assistance program is being created for unemployed or partially unemployed individuals.
Those individuals will be able to receive a $200 per week enhancement to their unemployment benefit for a four-week period beginning with the UI week of Nov. 28 through the benefit week ending Dec. 19.
Individuals won’t need to do anything extra to receive the benefit. Just keep filing their payment requirements at mtworks.gov.
Lastly, Bullock said he is expanding the funding allocation for the food bank assistance grants to help parents and families keep food on the table.
“(This) does not let Congress off the hook,” Bullock added. “We know the needs of Montana businesses and families are greater than what we can give them with the remaining state coronavirus relief funds and the needs will be greater next year as all the federal and state programs will be expiring. for our state and nation to be successful with fighting this virus in the coming months, we need all partners engaged, especially at the federal level.”
Steps to expand health care capacity
Bullock said he is seeking to bring in 100 contracted health care workers from across the country to help fill the gaps in the existing health care shortage. These individuals could also potentially to staff an alternative care site as hospitals continue to run out of room.
Bullock did not say what kind of alternative care site would be set up. Earlier in the year, however, FEMA worked with states across the nation to identify locations where field hospitals could be set up within a 24 to 48 hour period to provide additional bed space.
“We are closer than ever to reaching a breaking point in our health care system where we could run out of bed space and capacity to care for patients as we hit winter months,” Bullock said.
Winter months, he added, bring with them the cold and flu season — potentially even more hospitalizations on top of those already occurring because of COVID-19.
“Montana is not unique in as much as dang near every state in this country has to get their arms around this,” Bullock said. “And they cannot wait until vaccine is widely distributed.”