Montana added 664 new COVID-19 cases in the last week with 28 new hospitalizations.
Montana has averaged 71.6 COVID-19 patients in hospitals over the last week, the highest seven-day average since May, according to COVID Act Now. The state sits at 48.9% fully vaccinated.
In July, 86% of COVID-19 patients in the hospital were not vaccinated or their vaccination status was unknown, according to RiverStone Health public information officer Barbara Schneeman.
As of July 20, Montana reported 500 breakthrough cases, or positive cases that occur in a fully vaccinated person. This includes 51 hospitalizations and 10 deaths, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.
“People who are immunocompromised are more at risk of COVID-19 serious illness,” Schneeman said. “This would include older individuals because the older one gets, you don’t get as strong a response to vaccines. Everyone who is not vaccinated against COVID-19 is at higher risk for hospitalization and death than people who are not vaccinated."
The week also brought an increase in variants of concern from 577 reported last week up to 599 in the state’s July 20 update.
The Department of Health and Human Services reported 65 cases of the Delta variant, up from 51 cases reported the previous week. The state data reported that 21.8% of Delta cases have resulted in hospitalizations.
The Gamma variant, with 28 cases in Montana, has a 13% hospitalization rate. The Alpha variant, with 506 cases in the state, has an 8.7% hospitalization rate.
The counties with the most Delta cases are Yellowstone County with 18 cases and 46% of eligible residents vaccinated, Flathead County had nine cases and 39% vaccinated and Big Horn County with eight cases and 47% vaccinated.
The overlap of the pandemic with wildfire smoke could complicate public health’s response to both, and could influence the progression of the pandemic as people move indoors and smoke pollution impacts lungs.
“As air quality diminishes more people will be indoors and COVID-19 more readily spreads indoors,” said Schneeman.
On Monday morning, Broadus was listed in the top 10 areas with the worst air quality in the world. To limit exposure to wildfire smoke, the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention recommends moving indoors, but recommendations to limit the spread of the virus remain in place for those who are unvaccinated.
Powder River County, where Broadus is located, reported that 24% of the eligible population is fully vaccinated. Beaverhead County’s air quality is classified as unhealthy for sensitive groups with 49% of eligible residents fully vaccinated. The county has had four cases of the Delta variant.
Exposure to air pollutants from wildfires can also irritate the lungs and cause inflammation, resulting in more severe symptoms for those with COVID-19 or for those who are recovering from the virus. Chances of contracting the virus could also increase as exposure to air pollutants affects immune function and increases the risk of lung infections such as COVID-19, according to the CDC.
For the unvaccinated, the CDC recommends putting an air purifier in the house and maintaining physical distancing guidelines as the Delta variant is highly transmissible at indoor events and in households.
Those who catch the Delta variant are also likely to become contagious sooner, according to a recent study by Guangdong Provincial Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Researchers found that the viral load in those infected with the Delta variant is 1,000 times higher than that of the initial strain, meaning there are more copies of the virus in the respiratory system. The research also found that the variant is more infectious at the early stages of infection.
Vaccination remains the leading public health prevention strategy to end the pandemic as the virus will continue to change through mutation, resulting in more variants, according to the CDC.