Four cases of coronavirus confirmed in Flathead County

March 24, 2020 9:54 AM

By HEIDI DESCH

Whitefish Pilot

Four people in Flathead County have tested positive for the coronavirus, according to the Flathead City-County Health Department.

The first two cases were confirmed on Friday and include a male physician in his 30s who is employed with Kalispell Regional Healthcare and an Illinois man in his 50s. Two additional individuals were confirmed on Monday afternoon — a woman in her 30s who is an employee of Kalispell Regional Healthcare and a man in his 50s.

The state Department of Public Health and Human Services confirmed the cases. The total confirmed cases in Montana on Tuesday as of press time was 46.

Both the physician and the Illinois resident are in isolation at home and all the individuals they may have come into contact with have been notified, the health department and Kalispell Regional Healthcare said during a joint press conference on Saturday morning.

KRH on Monday confirmed that a second employee had tested positive after traveling out of state, and that those who had come into contact with the person have also been notified.

The announcement that Flathead County had its first positive tests for the virus came on Friday afternoon after the health department received notice of the positive tests from the DPHHS.

Dr. Jeffrey Tjaden, an infectious disease physician with KRH, said the physician who tested positive traveled between March 11 and 13 out of state by vehicle, and came to work on March 16 when he developed a sore throat. The physician reported his symptoms to hospital leadership, but did not have a fever and was allowed to continue to work while wearing a mask and gloves through March 18 until he tested positive for the virus and was then sent home.

The physician was not tested initially for COVID-19 because his symptoms did not meet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria, and he was not showing other symptoms like a fever and respiratory complications, according to Tjaden.

Tjaden noted that the physician works in a limited area of the hospital, but had contact with 14 patients and nine fellow healthcare workers. Areas where the physician was working have been cleaned, KRH noted, and those who had contact with the physician continue to be monitored and have been directed to quarantine at home.

The second KRH employee who tested positive traveled out of the state from March 12 to March 16 returning to work on March 17. The following day the employee was screened and had minor symptoms including a slight running nose and occasional cough, and was allowed to work. On March 21, the employee was contacted by the friend she stayed with out of state to notify her that the she had been in contact with a person who tested positive for COVID-19 and was having symptoms. The employee was then tested and KRH received a positive test on Monday.

Mellody Sharpton, director of Communications and Marketing for KRH, in a release on Monday said the employee is recovering at home on 14-day isolation.

“The appropriate detailed surveillance, interventions, and containment strategies are under way and as before all the appropriate steps will be taken,” Sharpton said in a release. “As a reminder and as a part of our investigation, anyone who meets the surveillance criteria for contact with this employee will be notified, sent home for quarantine and tested should symptoms arise.”

All employees who were tested last week had negative results, KRH notes, and individuals who remain in 14-day quarantine continue to have no symptoms.

KRH has sent in more than 150 tests for COVID-19 and only two employees’ tests have come back positive.

During Saturday’s press conference, KRH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Doug Nelson said the hospital continues to use caution, doing interventions and containment strategies that it has been preparing for weeks.

He noted that travel restrictions for KRH employees now include a 14-day quarantine for those that travel outside the adjoining counties to Flathead. Both employees who tested positive traveled before the restrictions were in place.

“Our travel restrictions are more stringent than the [U.S. Center for Disease Control] guidelines,” he said.

Nelson said testing guidelines have changed over time, but first responders and those who have come into contact with a patient who has tested positive and have symptoms are being prioritized for testing.

“There is no indication of person to person transmission in the Flathead Valley at this time and that’s good thing,” he said.

In addition to Flathead, counties in Montana with confirmed cases now include Broadwater, Cascade, Gallatin, Lewis and Clark, Madison, Missoula, Ravalli, Roosevelt County, Silver Bow and Yellowstone.

Heath officials are encouraging social distancing — avoiding others by staying at least 6 feet apart and staying home — to slow the spread of the disease. Folks are also asked to wash hands frequently and avoid touching their face, and regularly clean and disinfect touched objects and surfaces.

Symptoms of the coronavirus include fever, shortness of breath and coughing, and these may occur up to 14 days after exposure, according to the CDC. Those with signs of illness, in particular, are asked to remain at home and contact their healthcare provider by phone.

“Please do your part to ensure that this isn’t spread,” said Hillary Hanson, Flathead County Health Officer. “Please use social distancing and stay inside.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on March 12 declared a state of emergency for the state related to the coronavirus. Flathead County Commissioners on Wednesday, March 18 declared a state of emergency related to the coronavirus to allow for the spending of emergency funds.

Whitefish Mayor John Muhlfeld on March 19 also declared a state of emergency for the city related to the virus.

The health department has established an information-only hotline for the community to learn updates, which can be reached at (406) 751-8188. A website has also been established to provides guidance to the general public at https://flatheadhealth.org/novel-coronavirus-covid-19/.

The state has also established a website with information related to the coronavirus, visit https://covid19.mt.gov/