The Coronavirus pandemic has taken hold of the United States and caused a real mess. According to the COVID Tracking Project at the time of this writing, 959,056 Americans are sick with the disease, and 49,164 people have died from it. The economy is on its knees from the shelter-in-place/stay-at-home mandates and limiting of person-to-person contact required to suppress continued and rampant spread of the disease.
We have had national, state, and local emergency declarations with cancellations of sporting events, conferences, large group meetings, school closures, and shutdowns of bars and restaurants.
The disease has been particularly severe in crowded metro areas like New York and New Jersey, but sickness and death has occurred everywhere, and Montana is no exception.
By April 27, our state has had 448 reported cases, and 14 have died.
The rally at the capital in Helena on April 19 revealed people’s concerns about whether the health threat in a sparsely populated state like ours is really worth the hardships of social isolation, business closures, and job loss.
Can Things Really Be that Bad?
Given the crazy exponential math showing how rapidly new infectious diseases can move through a population that has no natural immunity, things are indeed pretty dire.
Although the experts are still coming up the learning curve on the novel Coronavirus, they know it is a highly infectious respiratory disease similar to the flu. They also know each infected person is likely to infect two or three others who come in close contact.
While the disease has been relatively mild for younger people, it has been considerably more severe for we older folks, whose immune systems may no longer be as robust as they used to be.
So far, most deaths from COVID-19 in the United States have been in adults 65 or older—according to the Center for Disease Control, 8 out of 10.
Let that sink in.
With that rather limited knowledge, coupled with information gathered from China, South Korea, Italy, and other countries first experiencing the Coronavirus impact, epidemiologists have run some computer models providing estimates of the future progression in the United States.
The New York Times reported in March that initial modeling showed infections could peak at about 9.4 million by the middle of July, with total deaths reaching about 1.0 million by October or November, if we had no change in our daily activities and only limited available testing for the disease.
Since then, improved models with better data and methods that account for the effects of the physical distancing—most notably the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s (IHME) model from the University of Washington—suggest the daily COVID-19 infection rate in the United States likely peaked on April 15, and the projected total deaths will likely reach about 60,000 by the end of June.
These numbers are still terrible, but they indicate our stay-at-home measures have had some significant effect.
Proceed with Caution
Before jumping on a bandwagon to quickly get back to normal social and work activities, expert epidemiologists are warning us that moving too quickly to relax restrictions could lead to a second deadly wave of the disease.
For some real-world context, when infections and deaths from the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918 began to decrease, the quarantines were relaxed in many areas of the United States, and a second wave of the disease killed more than the initial outbreak. All told, the Spanish Flu killed about 675,000 in the United Staters, and that was with a much less mobile population only about a third of the size of our current population.
So, the $64 question is whether a sparsely populated state like ours can slowly relax our stay-at-home distancing measures and allow more business and social activities without causing a new surge of infections and deaths.
Next Steps for Montana
On April 23, Governor Bullock announced that some of the restrictions in place in Montana could be relaxed starting April 26. This first reopening phase has no set timeline and includes the following mandates:
- People over 65 and those with underlying health conditions are asked to continue to stay at home.
- Senior and assisted living facilities must prohibit visitors.
- People are asked to avoid gathering in groups of more than 10 if the situation does not allow for social distancing.
- Gyms, pools, movie theaters, and bowling alleys will remain closed.
- Residents are asked to minimize non-essential travel and self-quarantine for 14 days after returning to the state.
This gradual reopening of business and social activity is in general accordance with recommendations of the IHME and the National Coronavirus Task Force. In addition, IHME strongly recommends the adoption of robust disease testing procedures and tracing of contacts with those found to be infected, to detect any new surge of disease.
So long as the daily infection rate decreases or stays constant for 14 days, more restrictions can be lifted in Phase 2 and Phase 3 of the gradual return to more normal conditions of business and social activities.
Finding A New Normal
So, my fellow Montanans, please continue the hand-washing and the physical distancing as much as possible as we begin this gradual return to work and social activities. Let’s take some joy in being able to actually visit our friends and families.
Let’s hope we can reach Phase 3 in a few months, where virtually all businesses can be open, and things truly can be back to a new normal—one where we continue to practice the good hygiene and disease-prevention measures we’ve learned over the past couple of months and we remember how bad this pandemic had been, taking steps to minimize the next one.
Sources of Good information About Coronavirus Used for This Report
- Modeling information and data from the IHME at the University of Washington
- A University of Texas Model expanding upon the IHME model with some improved statistical accounting for future prediction uncertainty
- Data and maps from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
- Disease prevention information from the Centers for Disease Control