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Bullock details COVID-19 testing expansion plan


April 30, 2020

Gov. Steve Bullock detailed a plan for expanding Montana’s COVID-19 testing capabilities and practices in a press call and also in a tele-town hall Wednesday.

Bullock said the efforts of Montana’s health care workers and citizens has contributed to Montana’s relative success in dealing with the pandemic, and he thanked the frontline health care workers, state lab workers, state epidemiologists and local public health experts for their service.

“Due to the round-the-clock work of our health care workers, and Montana’s collective actions, we have suppressed the virus in Montana,” he said.

Bullock said as Montana enters Phase One of re-opening the work to track and address the virus is not done, and Montanans should remain vigilant.

“It’s so important as we gradually open facets of our state that we think of our neighbors with every single action that we take, no matter how small,” he said.

Bullock said public health experts he’s consulted said the amount of spread is low in Montana.

“We are the lowest per capita in hospitalizations and in positive tests, and the way that we got there was because of the actions that we as Montanan’s took together,” he said.

Bullock said these are good signs, but expanded testing will help monitor for any resurgence as the state opens back up.

He said he sympathizes with Montanans who want to open their businesses back up and get back to work, but that Phase Two of the state’s re-opening won’t start for at least two weeks.

“It’s today’s transmission that may well end up showing up anywhere from six to 14 days from now,” he said.

State Medical Officer Dr. Gregory Holzman said when Phase Two arrives will depend on how seriously Montanans continue to take the situation and social distancing.

Bullock said the federal government has committed that it will supply 12.7 million swabs for Montana in the month of May, with more coming as time goes on.

He said further testing supplies will be secured through the public and private sectors, along with partnerships with the other states, the federal government, and private labs.

Bullock said the state government secured 5,000 swabs from FEMA last week, with another 10,000 this week and 7,000 to arrive Wednesday or today. He said they’ve also secured 3,000 from private sources.

He said the state would be working on establishing consistent supply chains of swabs and other supplies like reagents in the weeks ahead.

Bullock said the state’s plan includes continued testing for symptoms and using contact tracing when necessary, which he said is already being done effectively.

He said the plan also calls for sentinel cites be set up to screen the asymptomatic in vulnerable communities.

Bullock said the re-opening necessitates that the state ramps up testing in order to make sure that the progress made in the past month isn’t lost.

“We are continuing to ask providers to test anyone with one or more symptoms of COVID-19, including the CDC’s recently expanded list of symptoms,” he said

This list includes chills, shaking, muscle pain, headache, sore throat and a new loss of taste or smell.

“If any Montanan has one or more of these symptoms, I’m asking you to get tested,” Bullock said.

He said the state is working toward the goal of 60,000 tests per month, which he said is in line with recommendations by public health experts.

“This is a long-term goal that we will be ramping up to get to,” Bullock said.

He said beginning next week all residents willing, and all employees of assisted living facilities will be tested, with surveillance testing continuing from there.

Bullock said that, next month, enhanced surveillance testing will begin in Montana’s tribal communities as well. He said this was important due to how common multi-generational living is.

Surveillance tracking involves testing enough of a given population to track if and how the virus is spreading so that it can be dealt with. He said this kind of testing will eventually become available for the general population.

“As testing becomes more widely available, we will be partnering with our local community health care providers to test frontline workers and conducting general population surveillance testing as well,” Bullock said.

He said the state is looking into establishing surveillance tracing in state prisons as well.

He also said the state has put together five “strike teams,” consisting of one certified nurse and four national guardsmen, established in the event of positive tests. Starting next week, they will be available to nursing homes, long-term care facilities and tribal communities.

Bullock said the teams can also provide training and assistance with infectious disease protocols for these facilities upon request.

He also said, using CARES Act dollars, the state will be establishing a $5 million grant program for local public health offices to help establish contact tracing programs, and to help work with local businesses to make safe re-opening plans.

Bullock said efforts to create programs like this have been delayed by a lack of action by the federal government.

He said only this past Friday did the state get any guidance from the federal government about how CARES Act money could be spent.

Bullock also said it will still be some time before a vaccine for COVID-19 is created and that Montanans should be prepared to continue social distancing.

“This virus is and will continue to in Montana for the foreseeable future,” he said.

“The more protective actions Montanans take in the coming weeks the more likely that we’re going to be keep the curve flat, the more likely that we can deploy resources to where they are needed,” Bullock added.

He strongly recommended that Montana’s continue to wear non-medical face masks while in public, especially at places like grocery stores, and to continue washing their hands regularly etc.

“It’s with these simple precautions during Phase One that we can certainly use to protect our neighbors,” Bullock said, “… We must remain flexible, vigilant and patient as life will still be much different than it was before this virus.”

Holzman said a lot of private companies are coming forward with antibody tests, but there are challenges to be addressed before these tests can become a widespread resource.

“We are looking at everything that comes out and paying attention to that,” Holzman said, “We’ll feel more comfortable once we know that there’s an antibody test out there that doesn’t have cross re-activity, meaning that it’s not getting false readings.”

He said there are still open questions about what kind of immunity people have after they’ve recovered from the virus and the knowledge would add crucial context to the results of these tests.

“With this virus, we’re learning more every day,” Holzman said.

He said they look forward to using the antibody tests once the feel more confident about its efficacy.


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