Following six presumptive positive tests for the new coronavirus within Montana's borders, Gov. Steve Bullock on Sunday afternoon ordered public K-12 schools statewide to close for two weeks, encouraged limits on gatherings of more than 50 people and put into place visiting limitations at nursing homes.
“As governor, it is my top priority to protect the health and safety of Montanans, particularly our most vulnerable, at a time when we face the potential for extraordinary health risks from coronavirus in our state,” Bullock said in a press release. “Social distancing is one of the most important primary protective measures to flatten the curve of this virus. I cannot underscore the seriousness of following these measures to help our neighbors, friends, and families.”
All public K-12 schools will be closed Monday, March 16, until March 27. Previously Sunday some local districts announced closures and some schools were set to start spring break this week. Bullock's order does not apply to private schools. It is a move to slow the spread of the virus, not in response to outbreaks at any schools in Montana.
Thirty-six additional tests for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, processed Sunday at the state laboratory in Helena came back negative.
In the 2018-2019 school year, there were 147,785 students enrolled in Montana's 823 public schools. Nonpublic school enrollment, which is self-reported, was 13,979.
On Friday, the federal government approved a waiver that would allow for eligible summer food programs to provide grab-and-go meals. About 41% of students across the state are eligible for free or reduced lunch.
Schools will plan to provide free meals to students who need them following that waiver, Bullock said, as well as "other matters and services that students need in the event of future or ongoing closure." Schools will continue to get state funding during the closure and school employees will be paid.
The closure does not shut down the Montana School for the Deaf and Blind or Montana Youth Challenge Academy, which are residential programs.
Bullock encouraged employers to "be generous with their employee sick and paid leave policies during this time," according a press release from his office.
“I recognize that our schools often serve as a lifeline for families and that this decision is going to have disruption on Montanans over the coming weeks. I’m committed to working with schools, communities and public health to minimize the impact. I encourage businesses to do everything they can to support families as well,” he said in a press release.
The order does not include day care centers.
On Friday evening, the state announced the first four positive presumptive tests for COVID-19, and another two followed Saturday. That brings the number of cases assigned to Montana at seven, as the case a woman in her 70s who hadn't been in the state since November and was diagnosed in Maryland was assigned to Montana, following normal protocol.
There are two cases in Missoula County, including Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian. His office said Saturday night he likely contracted the virus at the March 5 Board of Regents meeting in Dillon. The other Missoula case is a woman in her 30s.
The one case in Gallatin County is a man in his 40s; the Yellowstone County case is a woman in her 50s; the Butte Silver-Bow case, also likely connected to the Regents meeting, is a man his 50s; and the Broadwater County case is also a man in his 50s. Presumptive positive tests are confirmed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Bullock said Saturday those four people were not hospitalized and at home recovering.
On Sunday Bullock also recommended a limit on all gatherings, especially those of more than 50 people.
He also called on those who are older than 60 or immuno-compromised or who have chronic health conditions to not go to gatherings of more than 20 people.
Additionally, he recommended parents avoid, if possible, placing children in the care of grandparents or those who are compromised.
The governor also suspended visitation at nursing homes in the state, except for certain compassionate care situations. Those who meet the exceptions will be screened to see where they have traveled in the two weeks prior to the visit, if they live in a community where spread is occurring, or if they have symptoms.
Bullock's decisions Sunday came after regular briefing calls with the country’s governors and the White House, as well as doctors, public health authorities and school leaders.
On Saturday, Bullock said the state had 850 tests available at the state Public Health Laboratory in Helena. By Sunday, 205 people had been tested in Montana by the state lab.
The state lab is now open and testing seven days a week.
Earlier in the week, the state Medical Office Greg Holzman said Montana had 400 out of 1,400 medical-surgical hospital beds available, though other types of beds could be used in an emergency.
St. Peter's Health in Helena said its number of available beds changes every few hours and that because it is in the midst of a bad flu season, the facility has had limited bed availability for several weeks.
It is not, however, so limited that it is diverting patients. There have also been preliminary discussions with other facilities in the community about contingency plans to expand bed capacity, such as expanding into spaces like the Helena Surgicenter.
The Helena hospital also said Sunday it has 13 ventilators and a contingency plan in place if it needs more.
While the facility has more than 300 N95 masks on-hand, it noted those are no longer considered necessary following new CDC guidance that moved from aerosol precautions down to droplet and contact precautions, eliminating the need for N95 use.
The new precaution is for surgical masks with eye shields, gowns and gloves. That supply is adequate at St. Peter's, the hospital said, and additional quantities are being delivered.
"We are confident at this time that our current supplies will be adequate in the event we experience a surge in patients," the hospital said Sunday. It has also canceled elective surgeries and procedures until further notice to conserve supplies.
St. Peter's is in contact with neighboring hospitals about sharing supplies in the event of a shortage. It's also an affiliate of University of Utah Health, which can distribute supplies among its network of facilities.
On Thursday, Bullock signed an executive order declaring a state of emergency. The order gives Bullock increased ability to mobilize state resources and take action such as shutting down schools or events. It also gives access to $16 million in state emergency funding. An additional $4.5 million in federal funding is also heading to the state.
At the federal level, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency Friday, which opens $50 billion in funding to states. Montana's Disaster and Emergency Services (DES) is discussing with the Federal Emergency Management Agency what funding will be available to Montana.
Adjutant General Matthew Quinn, who oversees DES, is coordinating a task force Bullock formed earlier this month to manage the state's preparations and response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.