BILLINGS - Vaccinations are the only way to stop this latest wave of COVID-19 cases in Yellowstone County, which has pushed hospitals to capacity and surged in younger populations, the county’s public health officer said in a news conference Thursday.
John Felton, the CEO of RiverStone Health, the county’s public health department, said Billings’ two hospitals have 99 COVID-19 patients as of Thursday. Of those patients, 36 are in the intensive care unit, and 23 are on ventilators.
Ninety-one of those 99 patients are not vaccinated against COVID-19, Felton said.
The news conference came on a day where Yellowstone County saw the most new cases in the state, 231, and now has 1,555 active cases, also the most in Montana, according to state figures.
This week, the county also hit a grim milestone of 300 COVID-19-related deaths, also the most in the state.
Cases in children, who aren't allowed to the vaccine until age 12, are helping fuel the surge, Felton said. In the week ending Sept. 4, Yellowstone County had 180 new cases of COVID-19 under the age of 19, which represented about one-quarter of all new cases countywide, he said.
Yellowstone County has a 49 percent vaccination rate as of Sept. 4, with 66,352 residents fully vaccinated.
RiverStone will continue to provide weekly updates on hospital capacity on its Facebook page.
Felton noted that a new state law, House Bill 702, is creating a quandary for public-health employees. The aim of the law, passed by the 2021 Montana Legislature, was to prevent discrimination against the unvaccinated, but it conflicts with CDC guidelines, Felton said.
The CDC recommends quarantine for the unvaccinated because of the heightened risk of COVID transmission, but the agency makes so such recommendation for the vaccinated, who are less likely to spread the virus, even with breakthrough infections, Felton said.
He added that he didn’t think the creators of HB 702 intended to create this conflict, and he urged the Legislature to come up with a fix.
RiverStone Health is conducting contact tracing for all schools in Yellowstone County, and Felton said employees are struggling to keep up with the demand.
“We simply cannot keep up at this point,” he said.
Watch the full news conference below: