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Officials warn of COVID safety as case number rises


Last updated 6/25/2020 at 11:59am

Gov. Steve Bullock held a press conference Wednesday to provide an update on the recent spike of COIVD-19 cases in Montana since the implementation of Phase Two of the state’s re-opening as well as to allow public health officials to provide background on the work they have been doing to combat the spread of the virus.

“Learning more about the virus and how it interacts in our communities is certainly critical in determining how we move forward in navigating these times,” Bullock said.

He said even places in the state that have been doing well need to remain vigilant for the virus and continue to heed the advice of public health officials.

“Even if a community or county is free of the virus today, this doesn’t mean Montanans can let their guard down,” he said.

“All it takes is one person, and the virus can quickly take off and spread to others,” he added.

Bullock thanked the state, local and tribal public health officers who have been overseeing surveillance testing and said, their work is critical in fighting the spread of the virus, citing recent tests done in Big Horn County where 35 percent of recent positive test results came from asymptomatic people.

“The finding of these asymptomatic cases shows that contact tracing is critical,” he said.

He also said recent findings by public health show that people coming back to Montana from somewhere else and people visiting relatives in Montana are at higher risk of infection than tourists.

Bullock said people should continue to slow the spread of the virus by doing things like staying home if they are sick, following public health guidelines and wearing a mask when social distancing is not possible.

“We’re not asking people to wear masks at all times,” he said. “It makes no sense when you’re fishing with your family or driving in your car alone, but do so at the grocery store, getting a coffee, driving into the gas station. That 15 minutes of inconvenience can make all the difference between one case and a dozen or more.”

He asked the citizens of Montana to continue to be an example to the nation.

Bullock said epidemiologists and the work they do has always been there and their efforts should be acknowledged not just for what they’ve done during the pandemic, but what they’ve been doing for their entire careers.

“These dedicated experts have been doing this for years in the field, not just the past few months,” he said.

Lead Epidemiologist for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Stacey Anderson talked about the importance of contact tracing, in which the close contacts of people who test positive for COVID-19 are tested and monitored to prevent the formation of clusters of cases, and what she and her colleagues have learned about how the virus spreads.

“It is really important to test these contacts that we’re finding because they may be inadvertently spreading COVID in their communities and they don’t know it, because they are not sick, they are not showing active symptoms,” she said.

She pointed out an instance where COVID-19 spread between two communities due to people traveling together in a car to a necessary events like medical appointment. She said it might make sense in instances like that to wear masks even in the car with other people.

Anderson said Custer County has had four distinct clusters, found by local public health, that have spread cases to four other counties. The four Custer County clusters have not been found to be connected yet, but she said, connections may well reveal themselves through contact tracing.

She said when gathering people should be careful about social distancing and wearing a mask if it’s not practical to do so, and people not going out at all if they’re not feeling well.

Anderson also pointed to another instance of workplace spread where one person who had COVID-19 but only displayed very light symptoms was driving in a van with co-workers.

“The entire van of seven people ended up being positive for COVID,” she said

Anderson also said these co-workers worked in different crews within their job and they inadvertently spread the virus to multiple counties and people in other states had to be quarantined because of exposure to the cluster.

Communicable Disease Control and Prevention Bureau Chief Jim Murphy said a cluster appeared among Missoula health care workers where the virus spread from one worker to four of their fellow workers and then to three more people including two in Lewis and Clark County.

“It shows how contagious this virus is and how even in a workplace-setting not social distancing and not using PPE can quickly lead to an outbreak,” he said.

Murphy stressed caution as people go back to work with the state re-opening.

“There are lessons that can be drawn from these,” he said.

He said people and businesses alike should listen to their health care providers and local public health officials.

“If you are asked to quarantine or isolate, there is a good reason for that,” he said. “If they are recommending social distancing or that you keep your restaurant at a certain percentage of capacity, these things are being done for a reason.”

He said he hopes that by taking this to heart, this trend can be reversed.

State Medical Officer Greg Holzman talked about how public health’s response to the pandemic has evolved as they learn more.

“We used to not test people who were close contacts, we used to wait to see if they have symptoms, now we test them right away,” Holzman said, “Things have changed.”

He also praised Bullocks actions early during the pandemic.

“In March, the governor made a series of decisions which prevented major outbreaks within our state, which could have over-stressed our health care system and led to an increased number of deaths,” he said. “Those months gave us time. It gave us time to learn more about COVID-19 and how it acts, it gave us time to get supplies and resources together, so we are ready to fight if the numbers were to increase… Those weeks were not about the health or the economy, they were about the health and the economy.”

Holzman also said that these decisions were made for the sake of public health and the economy.

“We need to have a healthy workforce and a public that feels safe for the economy to do well,” he said.

Holzman said Montanans need to work as a community to prevent further spread so people can be safe and not have the state go backward.

“There are some inconveniences, and we are going to have to deal with that, but they are so minor when you look at the alternatives,” he said.

He said people should seriously consider limiting their contact with other people or creating small groups of people to be social with while the pandemic continues.

“The more people you have contact with without doing the social distancing and everything else we’ve been talking about, the more chance you have of getting the disease, and the more risk you have of giving the disease to many different people and causing an outbreak that will be very difficult to control,” Holzman said.

He also said people should make sure people are following those re-opening plans put in place by local health departments.

“You may be a Griz, you may be a Bobcat, but right now, you just gotta be a Montanan,” he said.

Bullock said his office will be releasing updated directives today, making changes to assisted living visitation restrictions.

Under this directive facilities may allow visitors in accordance with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidelines and after notifying both residence and family members. CMS recommends the implementation of consistent test protocols including baseline testing of willing residents, and all employees with continued testing as time goes on.

He said the new guidelines further encourage virtual visitation, and for people to cancel any planned visitations if there have been any recent cases of COIVD at the facility.

He said these guidelines were made in consultation with an assisted living visitation policy working group, and thanked workers in the industry for their patience and cooperation.

Bullock said he knows this has been a challenging time for older residents of Montana and he hopes that, as summer comes, more opportunities for safe visitation and social interaction will arise.


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