Health board hopes any surge in COVID cases can be contained
Last updated 1/21/2021 at 12:10pm
Hill County Public Health Director Kim Larson said a good chance exists that the recent rescinding of statewide public health mandates by Gov. Greg Gianforte will result in a surge in cases, but couldn’t speak to its severity and encouraged everyone to continue to be careful not to spread the virus.
Gianforte’s new mandate eliminated former Gov. Steve Bullocks requirement including on business capacity, that restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos close by 10 p.m. and that public gatherings be limited to 25 people, but Gianforte kept mask requirements in place.
During the Hill County Board of Health’s quarterly meeting Wednesday, Hill County Commissioner Mark Peterson said he believes most people will continue to be responsible even after Gianforte’s new mandate, but expressed concern that those who don’t will cause a surge in cases in Hill County.
Larson said this is likely, but she hopes people will be cognizant of the situation and the surge will not be severe.
“I do anticipate a little bit of a spike,” she said. “I’m hoping we can contain it and people will continue to socially distance and still have it in their minds that we’re still in the middle of a pandemic.”
Peterson said, despite his concerns, he would like to thank the public for being largely responsible in dealing with the situation, and credited them with the dramatic drop in cases that has happened in the community in the past few months.
Larson said she agrees with Gianforte’s plan and Hill County’s case numbers don’t justify imposing local restrictions beyond his plan yet.
“I think we should follow Gov. Gianforte’s lead with the pandemic response for now, that’s my recommendation,” she said. “Our numbers have been doing really well.”
She said the county has dropped to less than 30 active cases which is an exciting milestone.
Larson said the department will monitor the numbers closely and will be considering when to let temporary contact tracers go based on what they observe.
Larson also discussed the county moving into Phase 1B of the state’s vaccine distribution plan and the department’s vaccination clinic today at the Holiday Village Mall.
She said the clinic is being run in cooperation with Northern Montana Health Care and Bullhook Community Health Center, which continue to be excellent partners in addressing the pandemic.
She said the clinic is scheduled to vaccinate 350 people, up from the initial 200 because the department was allocated more vaccine than they originally thought.
Larson said this will hopefully be the first in a series of weekly clinics to vaccinate everyone in Phase 1B, which includes everyone 70 or older and people between the ages of 18 and 69 who have underlying health conditions and Native Americans and other people of color at a high risk of complications.
She said the next clinic will exclusively vaccinate people 70 and older, but all subsequent clinics will include all groups.
She said sign-up for this clinic was announced on the department’s Facebook page and took only two hours to fill up and they are keeping a waiting list of people which now included upward of 340 people split evenly between both groups in Phase 1B.
Larson said the department attempted to advertise the event through local media including the Havre Daily News but all 200 slots filled to quickly for those advertisements to be released.
Hill County Commissioner Diane McLean said she heard some frustration from community members because many of them, particularly people 70 and older are not on Facebook.
Larson said the department has taken that into account and plans to advertise the events in traditional media before sign-up officially starts.
Larson said the Hill County Health Department has a dedicated line for people to call to be put on the waiting list at 400-2369, where people can talk to a staff member or leave a voicemail.
The health department estimates that more than 3,000 people 70 and older live in Hill County, and over 220,000 live in Montana, so there is still a long way to go.
She said it’s probably best for people in Phase 1B to get on the waiting list as soon as possible, because they don’t know how much vaccine they will get on a weekly basis, but she warned that people in Phase 1C will not be put on the waiting list.
Sanitarian position open
Board members announced that Hill County Sanitarian-in-Training Will Lorett has resigned and the position of Hill County Sanitarian is open.
Peterson said the Hill County Commission is looking at the position and how to fill it.
Clay Vincent, who still occupies the position, said he will stay on just to make sure everything in the office keeps moving, but the position is officially open.
No reason was given for Lorett’s departure.
Presentation on algal blooms
During the meeting Montana State University-Northern Associate Professor Terri Hildebrand gave a presentation on recent efforts to study the county’s recent problems with dangerous algal blooms, see if there is a way to predict them in the future, and increase public knowledge and awareness.
Hildebrand said many places in the county including Beaver Creek Reservoir have experienced numerous blooms, and this year the ones on the lakes in Beaver Creek Park were particularly bad.
She said these blooms occur when nutrient levels in the water become destabilize and get too high, which can lead to a population explosion for algae.
Not all algae is dangerous, she said, and its presence in water is necessary to ecosystem like those in the park, but when the population explodes, depending on what type of algae it is, it can be very dangerous, as some produce toxins.
Blue-green algae, which produces these toxins, at their normal population levels are not at all harmful, but when they overpopulate it can become dangerous to humans and pets, causing severe rash and other skin reactions if they go swimming.
In the worst cases it can cause illness or death if ingested, something that Hildebrand said has led to the death of children in the past.
Hildebrand said reservoirs in the county have had a lot of algal blooms already, one of which resulted in the loss of 14 head of cattle.
She said blooms of all kinds can also affect the health of fish by lowering the level of oxygen in the water leading to further affects on the waterbody’s ecosystem.
Peterson said he’s also concerned about the effect blooms can have on other local life, particularly white tail foxes.
He said at some point he’d like to see a solution to minimize the impact of these blooms, but Hildebrand said she’s a researcher and can only present the findings and, at most, guide decision making.
She said responsibility for action must come from the county or some other governing board because it’s important when studying things like this from a scientific perspective to simply observe, record and analyze, not going in with the attitude of telling people what to do.
Hildebrand said this project began after she started studying vegetation in Beaver Creek Park and has received funding from the National Institutes of Health through the IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence — INBRE — Program.
She said this grant allowed her to obtain better equipment and pay students to help her sample places in the park like first and second lake every month for a year starting last June, collecting data on the condition and contents of the water.
She said the project has moved into the phase where it will attempt to quantify local knowledge about algal blooms to determine what kind of education is needed.
Hildebrand said knowledge of the issue varies by region but she knows that many in the county know virtually nothing about the matter and and they want to survey as many people as humanly possible clearly a need for education exists.
She said she is still working on vectors through which to distribute the survey including through newspapers, Beaver Creek Park, the Hill County Courthouse, the local chapter of Walleyes Unlimited and putting it online.
Hildebrand said she would also be submitting a report to the Hill County Park Board in the coming months.