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Hill County Health Board to discuss new plans to combat COVID-19 surge

Hill County Public Health Director and Health Officer Kim Larson said during Friday’s Hill County Health Board’s weekly COVID-19 update call that board members will be considering ideas for how to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the county based on suggestions collected from the public in the past week.

Larson said the most popular suggestions the department received were enforcing Gov. Steve Bullock’s mask mandate as well as shutting down schools, bars and casinos.

These new considerations are in response to the recent surge of COVID-19 in Hill County, which she said is extremely concerning and causing the health department to be stretched thin.

“Last week at this time, we were at 199 cases in Hill County, currently we’re at 305,” Larson said. “Our active cases went from 56 to 117… our contact tracers are following 322 people who are in quarantine.”

In the Hill Count Health Department update Sunday evening, Larson reported the county was up to 369 cases.

Larson said Friday that most of these cases are coming from congregate settings, schools and social gatherings.

Larson said last week the department sent out a post requesting input from the community members to get a feel for where the county is and what the community wants them to do.

She said this request was not meant to imply that her department’s staff are not the health experts in this matter, but rather to get a feel for where the community is at.

She said the constructive ideas were sent to members of the health board Thursday and she’s asked them to look at it and come together to implement something to slow the spread of COVID-19.

“What’s currently in place right now, what our community members are doing, and not doing, is not working,” she said. “ … Our numbers are increasing very quickly and we need to slow it down.”

She said she wants members of the board to examine suggestions in preparation to meet and discuss what to do for the community.

Hill County Commissioner and Health Board Member Mike Wendland said, looking at all the comments, many were good ideas, but he also saw some that he said were pretty off the wall.

Hill County Commissioner and Health Board Member Mark Peterson said he’s not in favor of shutting businesses down.

“We start closing business down again and we’re just not going to have a city with any kind of economy at all,” he said.

Larson said the local economy is part of what the health department considers, but people in the community need to step up and do their part to slow the spread if they want to minimize harm to that economy and prevent business closures.

Numerous businesses in Havre are temporarily closing down due to testing or just to protect their employees and customers.

See related story today on Page A1.

Larson also provided an update on the activities of her department in the last week.

She said she’s been in contact with Havre Public Schools, and Montana State University-Northern, communicating with them about events and answering general questions.

She also said she has someone at the department who is working on data analysis of all the information in Sara Alert, the department’s contact tracing system, which will be used to inform their decisions and will be made public.

Larson said the health department looks at a lot of metrics when it makes decisions, so there isn’t really one number that will determine when actions are taken, but she’s interested in putting that information out for the public to see.

She said a county health department in southern Montana puts up a dashboard with all the data they consider when making decisions and she’s working on something like that for Hill County so the community has a more holistic view of where things stand in the community and what the health department looks at when making decisions.

Larson said state’s website now has a feature that tracks hospital capacity at facilities across the state, which members of the public can access as well.

The department is also in the process of getting new contact tracers and training them to further bolster the department’s efforts to combat the spread of COVID-19, she said.

Larson said no cases of influenza had been confirmed in Hill County yet, and her department now has their full stock of flu vaccines including the high-dose variety for the elderly.

She said the department recently hired a new immunization nurse who will be starting this week and will assist with flu clinics that Larson said she is in the process of setting up.

She said she’s hoping to run off-site clinics in Rudyard and Gildford, but plans still have to be made.

Bullhook Community Health Center CEO Kyndra Hall said she and her team are trying to figure out a way to assist the health department in dealing with this new surge as well.

Hill County DES Coordinator Amanda Frickel also provided an update on the personal protective equipment situation in the county.

She said she’s received a supply of PPE from the state, which will be sent to the hospital and, by all accounts, schools and first responders are well-stocked with the equipment.

Hill County Sanitarian-in-Training Will Lorett provided an update on complaints his department has received, which he said don’t seem to have increased.

“We did have a couple new complaints, but honestly, for the amount of cases that we’re seeing we’re not seeing an increase in complaints,” he said.

After Hill County Commissioner Diane McLean said she’d heard rumors that the health department had taken action against businesses, Lorett said some businesses in Havre closed down temporarily but clarified that all did so voluntarily.

Larson said she thinks these voluntary shutdowns will contribute positively to public health and praised the business owners that chose to do so.

“I think it’s definitely helpful,” she said, “Those businesses are seeing a need and doing their part to slow the spread of COVID-19 in Hill County.”

Hill County Clerk and Recorder Sue Armstrong provided some tips for voters amid the surge in Hill County.

She said voters with mail ballots should not lick their envelopes, but should use a glue stick and asked that people fill out their ballot at home instead of at the courthouse if possible.

She said voters should mail their ballots at least a week a head of time and, if that’s not possible, drop them off no later than Election Day.

The next COVID-19 update call will be Oct. 16 at 1 p.m. and the next quarterly Hill County Board of Health meeting will be Oct. 21 at noon.


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