Then came October. Three residents turned out to be positive, removing Petroleum from zero lists, forcing the county’s lonely school to close for a week and proving, as Sheriff Bill Kassel said, that “we would eventually get it” and that the virus “is not there yet . “
This is a lesson that people in many other wide open places learn when the coronavirus rises again. Months after he raced in successive waves along national shores and across the Sun, he reached deep into his last frontier ̵
In Montana, which boasts just seven people per square mile, active cases have more than doubled since the beginning of the month, with officials warning of hospitalization levels at the crisis level and tensions over rural healthcare. In Wyoming, which ranks 49th in population density, the National Guard is deployed to help track contacts. These two states, along with the low-density states of Idaho, North Dakota and South Dakota, now have some of the highest workloads in the country per capita. Even Alaska, the least populous state, has seen unprecedented increases, including in rural villages.
“People here joke that we’ve been socially isolated since before the state was created,” said Christine M. Porter, an associate professor of public health at the University of Wyoming. “As for the reason this happened now and hasn’t happened before, it was essentially a sloping geography. It is a disease that spreads exponentially once it takes root, unless you take serious measures to stop it. “
Most of the cases in these countries are grouped in their relatively small towns, but the infections are spreading. In Montana, about 55% of cases were in populated areas by the middle of the month, compared to nearly 80% in the summer. And although the volume of cases may seem low, they are large for local officials and public health facilities.
Sue Woods runs the Central Health District in Montana, a Massachusetts-sized area that includes Oil and five other rural counties. There are about 120 active cases in the area, and Woods works 10 to 12 hours a day, mostly tracking contacts.
“The number of cases we see is so small compared to large settlements, but when you consider our population, we are right in the same percentage,” Woods said. “Two of us make most of our contacts with patients. It’s amazing. “
Some officials point to the positive side of the coronavirus attack later in the pandemic. They enable jurisdictions and healthcare facilities to collect personal protective equipment, speed up tests and learn more about the virus and how to treat covid-19, the disease it causes.
“Until a few weeks ago, we were very successful in curbing transmission,” said Alexia Harrist, a public health official and state epidemiologist in Wyoming. “It really gave us a very important time to better prepare for this jump.”
But with that delay came another risk, others say. As the virus spreads to regions that have felt relatively protected from the disease for months, but not the wider effects of stopping and scarcity, there are fears that fatigue will hamper efforts to stop the spread. Wyoming, like Dakotas and Idaho, has no mandate across the state, and leaders in the red states have expressed no interest in enforcing them.
At a recent press conference, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgham (R) pointed to a slide showing alarming levels of test positivity for states in the upper Midwestern and Eastern Rockies. North Dakota is moving about 10 percent.
“That chart would be pretty boring,” until the jump begins in September, Burgum said. “Maybe it gave us a sense of complacency, or maybe a sense of invulnerability or even a sense of pride that we would somehow avoid this thing.”
But now, Burgum warned, the state was about to add 504 deaths by Christmas.
I no longer “avoid the bullet”
Deer Lodge County, Mont., Has rocked between two and 10 active cases for most of the summer. An outbreak in a correctional facility in early September did not feed the community’s transmission, and by the middle of the month it looked like “maybe we’ll continue to avoid the bullet,” said Lee Ann Holmes, a health director in the southwestern county of 9,100 people.
This hope disappeared after the wedding, which took place without the necessary approval from the county. About 200 people gathered for a reception at the barn, Holmes said, and several were found to have coronavirus, including teachers and staff at the hospital, where 10 employees were ill earlier this month. Within two weeks, Holmes said, the county had 80 new cases. County schools switched to online training in two weeks.
In Anaconda’s small county seat, the cases have a huge impact on the workforce, Holmes said. One sick man was both a high school administrator and a restaurant server; the restaurant had to be closed temporarily. Several other companies have also done so, because of the sick or quarantined or as a precaution.
Among them was the Ranch Bar, founded 50 years ago by the late grandmother of manager Eric Hempstead. Hempstead, 28, said he was used to hearing his regular, many retirees dismiss the virus as “a bunch of nonsense that would never really come here.” Hempstead said he disagreed and adhered to state capacity constraints, and called on patrons to wear masks with moderate success.
The bar hosted a small wedding reception outside in September, but Hempstead said a group of tourists showed up, then it got cold outside and everyone – more than the 38-person limit at the bar – migrated inside. Hempstead was soon positive for coronavirus.
Hempstead closed the bar for two weeks because the staff would be difficult, and also because he was worried about his 80-year-old bartender and his customers.
“These people were here when I was 2 years old, crawling under the bar stools,” Hempstead said. “Now that everyone is older and I answer, I couldn’t put any of these people at risk.”
Hempstead reopened the bar on October 15 – with, he hopes, more power to require customers to wear masks. He has little doubt that they will keep coming: snow is already falling, narrowing the possibilities outdoors.
“The world is getting much smaller in the winter in Montana,” Hempstead said.
With the flu season approaching, this worries Jim Murphy, Montana’s chief epidemiologist. As many hospitals, small and large, are filling up and local health workers are under pressure, regional co-operation – such as combined flu vaccinations – is declining, he said. The big hospital at Billings Hotspot had to bring some Wyoming patients back to their condition. The tribal areas asked the state for tracking contacts and ambulance drivers.
“There is no area in Montana that is untouched. That means every district in Montana now has to use its own resources to respond, ”Murphy said. “They are unable to help their neighbors.”
In central Montana, Woods said she was able to unload some of the work, such as immunizations, at the county health department. But she said she was worried about the flu season. Even planning flu shots is a challenge because they will have to be indoors.
Petroleum County has been avoiding the coronavirus for so long in part because it is not on a main road, making it even more island than other rural counties, Woods said. Her three cases have been traced to trips outside the county, she said.
These cases and others in the region have served as a wake-up call, said Megan Sparry, whose job as a health worker involves applying a state mask requirement to businesses in counties with more than four active cases.
“We had a lot of masked repulsions until Covid became quite famous in the area,” Sparry said. “There had to be a death or a big hearth before people could take it seriously.”
In all the months, Petroleum has had zero cases, officials have not sat on their hands, said Sheriff Kassel, who is also the county manager and emergency medical technician in the county’s two-fleet ambulance.
The county is using federal money to put up Plexiglas barriers and set up a common room for telehealth in the courthouse in Winnett’s only town. He distributed masks and hand sanitizer. Kassel said he knew every resident of the county, and encouraged them to be careful.
“You go to the store and many people are not afraid of it. “Central Montana is a fairly independent part of the United States,” Kassel said. “I just tried to educate people: Try to be aware of other people. You may not care if you get it, but that doesn’t mean everyone else wants it. “
Although locals have been spared mostly by the coronavirus, the pandemic has taken its toll, Kassel said. His department has tripled the normal number of emergency calls this year – for car accidents, heart attacks and people in the city who “get drunk and stupid” and get injured while camping in the county, he said.
Kassel credits him to what he calls “crazy about the crown.” And he says he has highlighted Petroleum’s emergency crews, who have learned to wear protective gear and are afraid of exposure even in a county with few cases.
“It was inevitable that he would get here, and when he did, he would rise very high,” Kassel said of Montana and the virus. “The coronavirus itself did not get to Petroleum County very badly and we hope not. But the stress and mental fatigue that comes with dealing with it is not free of it. “
Jacqueline Dupree contributed to this report.