New COVID subvariants continuing to push Montana’s numbers higher

By: - June 15, 2022 6:25 pm

COVID illustration by Getty Images

COVID-19 cases are on the rise again, and officials urge individuals to stay vigilant in the face of new offshoots of the omicron strain popping up across the state.

“It’s still here, and it’s a persistent little bugger as far as a virus is concerned,” Lewis and Clark County health officer Drenda Niemann said. “We’ll continue to see mutations, see spread and see people impacted whether personally getting sick or having their businesses slowed by employees getting sick.”

As of June 10, Montana had 2,123 active cases and 71 hospitalizations, up from 17 on May 1. According to the New York Times, cases have increased by 58% compared to the daily average two weeks ago while deaths have decreased by 31%. Montana peaked with 3,094 cases reported in a single day on Jan 18.

On the week ending June 11, all 34 of the positive tests the Department of Public Health and Human Services analyzed linked back to strains of the omicron variant. The data is not as comprehensive as it was earlier in the pandemic, where during the initial omicron surge the state sequenced up to 800 positive tests a week.

The subvariants, the most common in Montana being BA.2.12.1 and BA.2 according to the Health Department, are highly transmissible strains, but their infections result in less severe sickness with fewer hospitalizations than previous COVID-19 variants.

Dr. Neil Ku, an epidemiologist at Billings Clinic, said new outpatient treatments like the prescription COVID-19 pill will help keep people out of the hospital and make an extreme surge in cases less likely, but he is concerned with the new strains’ high transmission rates.

“We may get more complacent because we’re not hearing about as many people getting hospitalized and dying, but this disease continues to cause a lot of infections and can go on to cause long COVID,” Ku said. “It may not sound as bad, but from our perspective, it is just as bad as Delta.”

Long COVID is the presence of long-term symptoms affecting people after their initial COVID-19 infection, which can range from chronic coughing and fatigue to difficulty concentrating and thinking, known as “brain fog.”

Health officers also note due to the milder sickness in recent COVID-19 cases and wide availability of at-home tests, the number of cases is likely much higher than the state Health Department reports. State numbers only account for positive tests within medical facilities and self-reported at-home tests, and Flathead County chief medical officer Joseph Russell estimates Montana has at least three times more cases than reflected in state data.

With the newer, evolving strains, more people are experiencing reinfections and breakthrough infections, meaning more are testing positive after receiving a vaccine. As of June 7, Montana reported 47,171 breakthrough cases since the vaccine became available, including 1,590 hospitalizations and 438 deaths.

Officials recommend individuals receive their boosters as soon as they are eligible to avoid waning immunity. Gallatin City-County health officer Lori Christenson said although 64% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated in her county, less than half have gotten their booster shot, which she said is one reason why Gallatin has the most active cases of any county in Montana.

Counties are approaching their get-out-the-vaccine efforts with varying levels of vigor at this point in the pandemic. While Yellowstone County and Flathead County have stopped holding mass vaccination clinics in recent months, Gallatin County is still heavily advertising its walk-in vaccine availability, and Lewis and Clark County held two mass vaccination clinics last month that attracted more than 400 people, most of whom received their boosters.

“The vaccines continue to work and encouraging our residents to get vaccinated is our primary focus at this point,” said Lewis and Clark County health officer Niemann. 

As many individuals embrace the “endemic” status of COVID-19 and stop wearing masks and social distancing in their summer activities, county officials agreed a continued rise in positive cases is likely even if not as severe as previous case surges.

“We need to treat it like influenza, not the common cold,” Flathead County chief medical officer Russell said. “Seasonal influenza is considered an endemic disease where we prioritize getting vaccines, especially for vulnerable populations, and coronavirus is no different. Endemic doesn’t mean the disease is over, it will reside in your community at a rate that isn’t going to go away.”

Health officials concur the best prevention is staying up to date on vaccine doses. Currently all individuals 18 and older are eligible for their first booster five months after their last primary dose, and adults 50 years or older or with immunocompromised status can get their second booster four months after their first.

“Mutations that occur on the other side of the world are not taking long to get to the U.S., and that’s what we’re seeing with this uptick in cases,” Niemann said. “We don’t need to be on high alert like the past couple of years, but we need to be vigilant. Have a fun summer but keep COVID in the back of your mind. Don’t forget about it.”

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Emily Tschetter
Emily Tschetter

Emily Tschetter is a junior studying journalism and political science at the University of Montana. She was born and raised in Billings and grew up surrounded with music between going to concerts and playing cello. She worked at the Montana Kaimin, University of Montana's independent student newspaper, as a news reporter last school year and will start as the news editor in the fall. In her free time Emily loves building up her vinyl collection, being overly critical of movies, going to cheap diners with friends and enjoying music whenever she can.