County Health Officer urges caution noting most aren’t yet immune to COVID-19

Editor | May 7, 2020 8:04 AM

Flathead County currently has no active confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the total number of cases has been holding steady for about three weeks, but the Flathead City-County Health Officer is still urging caution.

The county will likely see more cases moving forward, says Health Officer Hillary Hanson, and a low number of total cases means that a large majority of the county’s population does not have immunity to the virus.

“On the good side, we’ve been able to control it,” she said. “It’s put our community in a good place to start to reopen, but the hard part about it is that when we only had 37 known cases in Flathead County. It also means there’s a whole bunch of us that are not immune to this yet.”

The county had 37 positive cases of the virus, according to the health department, as of Wednesday morning. Two of the individuals, both over age 65 with underlying health conditions, died as the result of the virus. The 35 other individuals who tested positive are considered recovered.

“We’re still going to see cases,” Hanson told Whitefish City Council Monday. “We still need to be really cautious.”

The last new confirmed case of COVID-19 in the county was reported on April 13.

Symptoms of COVID-19 include cough, shortness of breath, fever, chills, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and a new loss of taste or smell. Symptoms of the virus can appear two to 14 days after exposure, and can range from mild to severe, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hanson says the big difference between influenza and COVID-19 comes down to immunity, and availability of hospital beds.

“When we’re looking at the flu not only do we have a vaccine available, we also have folks who have had the flu and have immunity to different strains of the flu,” she said. “What we’re looking at here [with COVID-19], none of us are immune to it.”

“While for some people those signs and symptoms may be minor, for others they’re going to be really major,” she said. “If we get a bunch of people sick at one time, we’re going to go beyond the resources we have available to care for those folks.”

Of the county’s positive cases, 17 individuals made contact with another person with the virus and 12 were associated with travel, according to the health department. Eight of the cases came from an unknown source, meaning the individuals likely contracted the virus while out in public.

Gov. Steve Bullock has issued a directive that remains in place ordering anyone who travels into the state to self-quarantine for two weeks. The order came in late March when the majority of COVID-19 cases in the state were linked to domestic or international travel.

Following the 14-day quarantine for those coming into the state, Hanson says, is essential in controlling the spread of COVID-19. She says the health department continues to work to educate folks about the quarantine.

“We’re trying to get the information out as much as possible,” she said. “We’ve distributed information to the vacation rentals and hotels, and per the mandate they have to let everyone know about the 14-day quarantine.”

In regards to testing, Hanson says any physician can order a COVID-19 test, and the state may soon look at making testing available to certain individuals who are asymptomatic.

“We have plenty of testing in the state at this point for anyone with signs and symptoms,” Hanson said.

Montana remains in the first phase of a three-phased plan, as set out by the governor, for reopening related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The phase allows for limited operations of retail businesses, restaurants and bars. It also limits group sizes of no more than 10.

There is no timeline for when the state could enter phase two and phase three. The second phase allows for increased operations for businesses and limits group sizes to no more than 50, while the third phase lifts much of the restrictions.

Hanson said Flathead County is currently following the governor’s three-phase plan to reopen, but if at any point, the health department determines that the county isn’t ready to move forward, it could look to put more restrictions in place.

“We do have the option at the local level to go more strict if we choose to,” she said. “At this point we’ve decided to go with the governor’s directives as they are laid out, but we are monitoring Flathead County.”

Hanson says the health department has put together a list of indicators to monitor the situation — number of cases and number of deaths related to COVID-19, along with ensuring the hospitals have enough personal protective equipment and an adequate number of open beds.

“If we ever get at a point where we get nervous about resources, we can look at what’s going on in the community and try to control it at that point,” she said.

As part of the phased reopening, the health department has put out guidelines for businesses on how to operate with reduced capacity and following social distancing. The health department has also been working with long-term care facilities, daycares and school districts.

“Daycares were never required to close, but many of them chose to because they follow what the school districts do,” she said. “We’ve seen lots of other groups come to us for assistance.”

Montana on Wednesday, had 456 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with almost 20,000 tests completed. The state has recorded 16 deaths related to the virus, 62 total hospitalizations and 417 individuals have recovered.

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