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Health Department bracing for more positives at testing event


Last updated 7/8/2020 at 11:59am

Havre Daily News/Jack Lambert

Handmade masks are seen in the Montana State University Extension Office located in the bottom floor of the Hill County Courthouse Tuesday. Masks are available free to any who needs one. With a surge in COVID-19 confirmations in the state, officials are urging people to use precautions to reduce the spread of the virus including wearing masks when out in public. With 11 active cases confirmed in Hill County by Tuesday evening, officials are asking residents here to follow those precautions including wearing masks, reducing going out in public as much as possible, practicing social distancing and regularly washing hands and disinfecting surfaces.

The Hill County Health Department, in the wake of new cases that were confirmed in the county over the holiday weekend, is now expecting more confirmed COVID-19 cases to result from the asymptomatic testing that Bullhook Community Health Center is performing today

"I'm expecting that we'll get some positives," Hill County Health Director Kim Larson said, "Of the six active cases we have now two of them are asymptomatic."

One case was confirmed Saturday and five more confirmed Monday.

More cases were confirmed in the county after the interview, with the Health Department now reporting 12 cases, 11 active, including new cases confirmed at Rocky Boy's Indian Reservation.

Larson said this demonstrates the urgent need for asymptomatic testing, considering that how many can have COVID-19 without knowing it.

She said the department has been getting a lot of calls from restaurants and similar facilities to see if any restrictions were put back in place.

Larson said the health department has not discussed the possibility of re-instituting COVID-19-related restrictions within the county and probably won't make any decisions regarding them until after the results come back from Wednesday's testing event.

"We're watching our numbers very closely. We're communicating with the governor, we're watching what other counties are doing... and based off of (Wednesday's) testing event and the results that come out of that we will discuss with our board of health and our health officer if we need to put some things back in place," she said, "We're hoping, as a health department, that we don't have to. We don't want to move backward."

Larson also said she's gotten a few questions about whether the testing event searches for anti-bodies, to which the answer is no. The tests conducted Wednesday will only detect whether or not someone currently has COVID-19. Furthermore, she clarified that every new case that was found over the weekend is someone who is currently infected with COVID-19.

"That negative test says that you're a negative at that moment in time, it doesn't say you are negative the next day, or the day after that," she said.

Larson said people whose tests come back negative should not stop using preventative measures like social distancing, frequently washing hands and wearing a mask.

"People need to be very vigilant with their preventative measures," she said.

Larson said hand sanitizer with 60 percent alcohol should be sufficient to keep one's hands clean, but that people should still wash them with soap frequently.

She also said she wanted to stress the importance of wearing a mask even if it is inconvenient.

"I understand that they can be uncomfortable, and they're not fun to wear, but you really have no idea what underlying health risks some people may have," she said, "I mean you may expose someone whose had four heart attacks in their life, or they're getting cancer treatments and you don't know that."

Larson also said social distancing is a must and that people should continue to be cautious of gatherings where social distancing is not being observed.

"If you are going out to an event, if you're going go out to a brewery or a bar or a restaurant, or you're going to a wedding, and you notice that it's really packed, and really busy, and people are really close to each other, make the smart decision and turn yourself around," she said, "... Keep yourself out of those situations."

Larson said lots of the confirmed cases public health is finding in Missoula and Bozeman stem from events like those where people aren't social distancing.

She said it's difficult to envision a worst-case scenario for a potential outbreak in the county until they get the results of Wednesday's testing.

She said because all six cases are a result of just one person who spread it among their contacts, this recent surge demonstrates the importance of prevention.

"Every positive then has all of their contacts and then they're tested and then it's their contacts as well," she said. "That's why prevention is the most important thing in infectious disease control, because we want to stop it before it gets here, because trying to catch up once it's started is a very hard and tedious job to do."

Larson said the department has gotten calls from people asking questions about contact tracing, and she said, contact tracing is nothing new to the department, but the pandemic is somewhat unprecedented in its scope.

"Contact tracing is something that we do day-in and day-out as public health with communicable disease, but this is on a different scale," she said.

Larson said she can bring in more staff for contact tracing, but for now she thinks things are going well enough that it's unnecessary.

She said that because there are still unknowns, she can't provide details about what level of outbreak Northern Montana Health Care would be able to handle, but she said, she thinks they're doing well at the moment.

"I think they're sitting pretty well right now," she said.

Disaster and Emergency Services Coordinator Amanda Frickel said the state of Montana has committed to helping the county in the event of a serious outbreak.

"The state will make sure that we have our needs met in relation to something catastrophic," she said.

Larson said the fact that all the cases are connected is a positive thing in the immediate sense, because for now there are no known clusters in the community, and she hopes it will stay that way.

She said she understands how badly people want to get outside and engage in social activities, but she said, people in the state might be letting that impulse get the better of them.

"It's summertime. People want to go outside and have fun, and we completely understand that. We want to do that too," she said. "But the more preventative measures that we take, the sooner we will be able to."

Larson said there is a state-wide concern among public health that people are getting a bit too lax in their observance of social distancing and other preventative measures as the state re-opens.

"I feel like we are getting a little bit complacent in thinking that this virus isn't as bad as it is," she said.

Larson said the health department is well fixed for masks and other personal protective equipment and complemented Frickel for keeping various departments well-stocked with necessary equipment.

However, she said the health department is trying to get more cloth masks for the public but that hasn't seen any progress yet.

"We've requested more cloth masks for our community members through the state, but we haven't heard back from them yet," she said.

Larson said anyone with questions can call the health department at 400-2415 and they will try to get those questions answered as quickly as possible.


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