Social distancing working to "flatten the curve," Yellowstone Co. health officials tell Billings City Council

Posted at 10:52 PM, Apr 06, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-07 16:13:43-04

Social-distancing measures appear to be working to flatten the curve of COVID-19 deaths in the state of Montana, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton told the Billings City Council at its Monday virtual meeting.

"I know (the health officer orders) impact every single member of our community. I know the impacts of these orders. But I want to tell you that there’s evidence that we’re getting good results," Felton told the council.

University of Washington projections show Montana's peak of cases being pushed back about 15 days. The original peak was expected around April 25, now the peak is estimated to occur April 13, Felton said.

"The other thing is that it’s really not a large peak. Remember if we talk about flattening the curve, the idea is we’re still going to get cases, but you’re not going to have these big peaks and valleys. What you're looking for is, can you sort of level out over time? That’s actually what we’re seeing," Felton said.

Screenshot from the University of Washington COVID-19 projections taken 4-6-20 showing COVID-19 projected deaths per day in Montana.

In his update to the Council, Felton referenced a USA Today article comparing COVID-19 case numbers to one of America's hardest hit states, New York. The article details what each states government is doing to slow the spread.

Felton said Montana is doing a good job.

“What you see when you look at Montana, our curve has gone up then it starts to flatten out. That is exactly what we hope to see. When you compare that to other states that have taken less aggressive action, the total number of cases may look about the same. But the thing to notice is those curves are still going up, they are not flattening out," Felton said.

Officials are cautiously optimistic that social distancing has worked to slow the spread. But Felton said the community is still "a little ways away" from returning to business as usual.

"I think the... question, if you will, is when do we stop these measures and how do we get people back to a more normal lifestyle. Which absolutely everybody wants ... It’s not going to immediately be business as usual. But we want to put measures in place that will get people back to work, keep customers safe, keep employees safe. When we get through the peak will likely not be the end of COVID-19, because many times you get secondary waves, sort of like aftershocks, if you will," Felton said.

Felton is anticipating updates from Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in the coming days about what he will do with his orders to stay at home and requirements of a 14-day quarantine for people arriving out of state. Felton said he's been trying to make his orders similar to the governor's.

"But at this point we are starting to work on when we can get people back to work. We all want that to happen. But normal is still a little ways away. I can’t give you an exact date. I know everyone would love that. But we kind of have to play this out in real time," Felton said.

Montana is not out of the woods yet. Billings Mayor Bill Cole encouraged cautious optimism and urged people to stay diligent about social distancing.

"I'm pleasantly optimistic that the very worst case scenarios have not materialized ... And I find that to be encouraging and reason for at least cautious optimism. But this is not the time for us or any of our residents to let up on our efforts to contain the virus," Cole said.

Recreation at Billings public parks was also a point of discussion at the meeting. City officials wanted to remind residents that the grassy, open areas of the parks are open to the public. But places where social distancing can not be maintained, like playground equipment and basketball courts, are closed for public use.