Contagious Delta variant hits Montana; 95% of hospitalized are unvaccinated

Montana officials worried about COVID spread among those unvaccinated

By: - July 8, 2021 6:10 pm

As daily covid vaccination rates slow across the nation, states are shifting from mass clinics to bringing shots more directly to people. But results can be unpredictable. Organizers of a Flathead Valley Community College clinic on April 29 had hoped to vaccinate at least 100 people, but ended up giving out only half as many shots. (Katheryn Houghton/KHN)

As the Delta variant of COVID-19 continues to pop up in Montana, public health officials are urging residents who have either not been vaccinated or only had one dose to get protected because the viral strain seems to spread more rapidly and may be more severe.

The Delta variant — known officially as SARS-CoV-2-B.1.617.2 — seems to spread more quickly, and it has led other countries to implement new rounds of quarantine and public health measures.

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services tracks the number of confirmed cases, and also the number of variants. For example, the Alpha or “UK” variant has been far more common in Montana, with a total of 457 cases reported. However, the Delta variant, which was confirmed in Cascade County on Wednesday, has been steadily growing throughout the state. As of Wednesday, it had been detected 33 times, with confirmed cases in Beaverhead, Big Horn, Carbon, Cascade, Flathead, Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Madison, Musselshell and Yellowstone counties.

Yale Medicine reports that the Delta variant was first reported in the United States in March and is now the dominant strain in the country. The variant was first detected in India in December.

F.Perry Wilson, a Yale Medicine Epidemiologist, said the Delta variant is spreading 50 percent faster than the Alpha variant, which spread 50 percent faster than the original strain of COVID-19.

“In a completely unmitigated environment — where no one is vaccinated or wearing masks — it’s estimated that the average person infected with the original coronavirus strain will infect 2.5 other people,” Wilson said. “In the same environment, Delta would spread from one person to maybe 3.5 or four people.”

Public health officials in Montana say the new strain is becoming more common and leaving unvaccinated people at much higher risk.

Currently, 47 percent of Montana’s population is vaccinated, or 432,327 residents as of Thursday. The Centers for Disease Control reports that 48 percent of Americans are fully vaccinated, putting Montana almost exactly on average for vaccines.

However, a breakdown of state statistics demonstrates the differences between those who are vaccinated and those who are not. Jon Ebelt, communications director for the Montana DPHHS, reported that the department had analyzed data from April 25 through last week and found that 95 percent of Montanans who were hospitalized for COVID-19 during that period had not received a vaccine. Nearly three-quarters of all residents more than 60 years old have been fully vaccinated.

Because of sheer numbers, more Montanans have been hospitalized with the Alpha or UK variant of COVID. However, the numbers for the Delta variant are giving officials much more concern. For example, out of the 33 cases of Delta COVID, 30 had been tracked through the progression of the disease. Seven of 30 needed hospitalization, or 23 percent, far exceeding the hospitalization rate of other variants. One of those cases resulted in death.

Even though full data and tracking has not been reported, Yale Medicine and the Washington Post reported that solid estimates from Great Britain show that patients infected with the Delta variant are twice as likely to wind up needing hospitalization.

However, new reports in the journal Nature show that the two-dose mRNA vaccines offer significant protection against the Delta variant, and even on breakthrough cases, those vaccinated often resulted in less severe cases. Meanwhile, the same report found that a single dose of the two-stage treatment offers little protection.

A resurgent virus, experts warn, could lead to a surge in cases at hospitals as well as put communities at risk.

Ebelt said the state continues to urge residents to get vaccinated to protect themselves, but also to help alleviate the strain on the healthcare system and get closer to herd immunity, which will impact the virus’ ability to spread and mutate.

In June 2021, the average daily COVID hospitalization was 54 people, down from a daily average high of 427 people in November 2020, Ebelt said.

Currently in Montana, there are 441 active cases, with nearly a quarter of those in Yellowstone County, and 89 new cases reported to the state’s website.

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Darrell Ehrlick
Darrell Ehrlick

Darrell Ehrlick is the editor-in-chief of the Daily Montanan, after leading his native state’s largest paper, The Billings Gazette. He is an award-winning journalist, author, historian and teacher, whose career has taken him to North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Utah, and Wyoming. With Darrell at the helm, the Gazette staff took Montana’s top newspaper award six times in seven years. Darrell's books include writing the historical chapters of “Billings Memories” Volumes I-III, and “It Happened in Minnesota.” He has taught journalism at Winona State University and Montana State University-Billings, and has served on the student publications board of the University of Wyoming.