Blaine County Seeing Increase in COVID-19 Cases, Fewer People Receiving Vaccinations

CHINOOK, Mont. (NMB) – Officials in Blaine County are expressing concern as COVID-19 case rates are increasing and demand for vaccines is dropping.

Blaine County was at zero active cases as recently as April 18th. The active case count has climbed to 21 as of Friday evening after five new cases were reported on Thursday and eight new cases were reported on Friday.

Some recent cases have been linked to the Chinook and Hays-Lodgepole school districts. Chinook reported one district-associated case on Wednesday and did not have to close. Hays-Lodgepole closed early this week after one district-associated case, but then reopened on Wednesday following deep cleaning and contact tracing. However, the District will be closed to in-person learning once again from May 3-7 after four district-associated COVID-19 cases were reported Friday. One case is associated with the high school and three are associated with the elementary.

Also on Friday, Fort Belknap announced that they would remain in Phase 1 of their reopening plan through the month of May due to the sudden increase in cases.

When it comes to slowing down outbreaks, Health Officer Jana McPherson-Hauer says the prevention measures that have been preached for the last year are still effective.

“Even with a potential additional wave of infection coming through, the strategies that we can take to protect ourselves and our families haven’t changed. It is still – wear a mask, wash your hands, socially distance from those either you don’t live with or don’t know the vaccination status of.”

And the increase in COVID-19 case rates comes as only 38 percent of the 4,910 eligible Blaine County residents (anyone at least 16 years old) are fully vaccinated, according to the most recent figures, with the rate of people receiving the vaccine having dropped over the last month.

McPherson-Hauer says the best tool to prevent a large outbreak is for the general public to receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

McPherson-Hauer says one of the concerns people bring to her is that they believe the vaccine was ‘rushed,’ despite the fact that mRNA technology that is used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines has been researched for decades.

“We try to reassure people that because of the dire need for a quick immunization campaign, because of the pandemic, that definitely sped it up. But the science and the research is sound. And it has been and is being studied for quite a while. There are some other factors that people will bring up when they talk about why they won’t receive the vaccine. With each individual topic, we try to find good data and good numbers, good evidence that shows that while the concern (about vaccines) is valid, that there is data that can maybe show that it isn’t a concern that really needs to be carried forward.”

She says she’s heard concerns from local residents about the vaccines impacting fertility, but there is no data to suggest that is the case.

“We need some time to collect data on that. But at this time, there is absolutely nothing in any of the vaccines that have shown to have an effect on fertility…We just try to present good, accurate scientific information in the contrary so we can make sure people are feeling safe when they are vaccinated.”

McPherson-Hauer says the age group that appears to be most hesitant to receiving the vaccine is young adults.

“Because you’re young and because you’re healthy, the infection itself might not cause trouble acutely. However, we just are hearing more and more about some of the long-term effects. When you’re young, you have a lot more years to suffer from or deal with long-term effects. I try to get people to not only thing about the acute infection, but the unknowns of COVID. Part of that is what happens if you recover? From a public health standpoint, when you don’t have to be isolated anymore, we see people with some tachycardia, some heart involvement and complications, some neurological effects – whether that’s headaches or dizziness or increased anxiety and depression or sleep disturbances – all of these things have been reported at quite a high level, and in fact, at a higher level in younger people. So I try to get that across as an additional reason to protect yourself, your family, and your friends. Also, it does go back to that you may not get sick (from COVID), but you may have exposed somebody who really won’t handle it well. And we do have a responsibility as young, healthy individuals to protect the people around us.”

McPherson-Hauer adds that if there were to be a large outbreak, it would put even more stress on a Health Department that has been hard at work combating the pandemic for over a year.

“It’s kind of tapped us out in a lot of ways. We will continue with our standard practices to the full extent that we can. We haven’t lost anyone out of our health department recently, but some of the funding that we had to direct toward contact tracing and support with it has gone away. As it is right now, we would do our best (in an outbreak) to continue to apply the standard process to contact tracing and testing and all of those things that we have. But it does, as this has gone from what we thought was a sprint a few months ago to quite the marathon, it wears on people. In all of the ways – emotionally, mentally, physically. So at this point, I would say we have the capacity to respond to another wave. It’s hard at this point, because not only are we doing the public health management, the contact tracing and so on, but we’re also continuing with our vaccination efforts. That is where our capacity becomes limited in both of those areas. Because we kind of have to divide at that point and still cover both. Where at the beginning of this, there wasn’t both kind of arms of the same response that there is now.”

Blaine County is moving to walk-ins for vaccination clinics. On May 12th and 20th from 3-7 PM, there will be clinics at the Commercial Building at the Blaine County Fairgrounds. The Moderna, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines will all be available.

Anyone with questions is urged to contact the Blaine County Health Department at 357-2345.

This story has been updated

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