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Health board: Symptomatic COVID cases and contacts top priority

Some surveillance testing results delayed, mask directive discussed


Last updated 7/27/2020 at 11:48am

The Hill County Health Board discussed Friday recent COVID-19 developments including the backlog of surveillance testing results and Gov. Steve Bullock’s recent mask directive.

Hill County Health Officer Jessica Sheehy said 754 tests have been conducted in Hill County, which currently has 21 active cases with 14 recovered as of the meeting.

Hill County Public Health Director Kim Larson said the week had been better than the last few when it comes to positive cases of COVID-19.

“We haven’t seen a huge increase in cases this week, hopefully it stays that way,” she said during Friday’s meeting.

Sheehy said that due to Montana’s current backlog of surveillance testing the state as essentially recommended events like the one that took place three weeks ago be temporarily discontinued.

“There is a bit of backlog with the surveillance testing, and hopefully in the next couple of weeks that will be corrected, and we will keep everyone updated on that,” she said.

She said the health department is still testing symptomatic people for COVID-19.

Sheehy said surveillance testing and symptomatic/contact tracing testing are treated as having different levels of priority, with the latter having results available 48 to 72 hours after the test is performed.

She said surveillance testing for asymptomatic people are considered lower priority by the state and a substantial backlog has developed causing delays in getting results back.

“It used to be around seven to 10 days, but it’s been closer to two weeks on onward,” she said.

Bullhook Community Health Center CEO Kyndra Hall said this delay has been troubling for her organization, which has only received the results of ¼ of tests performed at their surveillance testing event three weeks ago, all of which have been negative so far.

“It’s been pretty frustrating on our end also that the state and their relationship with Quest has delayed the results of these test coming back,” Hall said.

Sheehy said the current policy is to contact people who tested positive but not those who test negative.

She said people should remain cautious regardless of whether or not they have been contacted because the results of these tests are already more than two weeks old and if someone has been out in the community they are still capable of getting the disease.

“It’s good information. It’s helpful to see if we have community spread, but if you have been out and about it’s not the entire picture,” she said.

Sheehy said this delay can make contact tracing substantially more difficult with the process becoming much slower the longer it takes for results to come back.

She said the health department is still in the midst of their contact tracing efforts and employees of the department have been working long hours to investigate close contacts of the positive cases who often test positive.

“If we get a positive, we will likely find more positives, that’s what we’ve been seeing regardless of symptoms,” she said.

Sheehy said, similar to surveillance testing, the department’s policy is to get in touch with the close contacts of people who test positive and if the health department hasn’t contacted someone, it means they are not a close contact.

“Really, just trust this process. If you haven’t been contacted there is a reason,” she said.

Sheehy said the department has been getting a lot of calls from people afraid that they have been in close contact with cases, but asked that people trust the department to get in contact with them as these calls can slow down the departments contact tracing efforts.

She also encouraged people to be very cautious about where they get their information and not to let their fears be stoked by unsubstantiated claims.

“Please, try not to follow the rumor mills,” she said.

Sheehy also discussed Bullock’s mask directive and said it will be in effect in Hill County until it drops below four active cases, after which masks will still be heavily encouraged.

She also encouraged people to be cautious while traveling, and to continue to use social distancing and all other precautionary measures.

Sheehy said the health department is still doing some work with people on events, but given the recent surge in cases the department is being cautious of large events.

“With the increase in cases we’re not encouraging events over 50 (people),” she said.

She said the department has also been talking with the school system regarding a potential re-opening and what it would look like.

Sheehy said health organizations around the globe are seeing the virus infect young people.

“Certainly, this is a concern to the immune-compromised and the elderly, that is still the case,” she said, “But we are seeing cases under 40, certainly in kids. In the next couple of months there are a lot of decisions to be made, and we, of course, respect the people making those decisions. We are here to provide information in any way that we can.”

Havre Public Schools will hold a special board meeting Tuesday which includes consideration of options for re-opening Havre Public Schools this fall.

Sheehy also said the department has been working on providing educational resources to businesses regarding masks and Bullock’s directive.

Hill County Attorney Karen Alley said she’s been working with the health department on this issue as well and said they are using a three-step process for dealing with businesses that are reported for violating the directive, with the response to an initial complaint being an educational call from the health department and the health officer.

She said a second complaint would result in an order of corrective action issued by the county health officer, and a third complaint would result in legal action which could include both a criminal complaint with fines and fees and a civil injunction.

Alley said if people do have complaints, they should use the Health Department’s email and should provide their name, phone number and a valid email address.

Larson also said the department has yet to reach step two with anyone, and Hill County Sanitarian-in-Training Will Lorett said people have been responding well to the educational call and the Hill County sanitarians’ inspections have not found any serious issues yet.

“We’ve had a few complaints where we did the educational call for businesses in town, but everybody at that point has been pretty willing to move forward with that, so we haven’t had any real problems yet,” he said.

Hill County Commissioner Mike Wendland said he’s been encouraged by the public’s response to the directive.

“As I’ve been out in the public, people are wearing their masks, and I think that’s a good sign,” he said. “I think people recognize the necessity of this and of keeping our numbers down so we don’t have to go back to any bigger restrictions. … We just don’t want to affect the economy by going back into any kind of shut down.”

Wendland encouraged people to continue to wear masks and to help get their fellow citizens informed.

After some discussion it was also decided that the health board’s COVID-19 updates would move back to a weekly schedule and will be moved back to 1 p.m.


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