Five Missoula firefighters test positive for COVID; health officials mull restrictive measures

Five firefighters with the Missoula Fire Department have now tested positive for COVID-19, the city said Tuesday, and health officials are racing to keep up with a growing number of infections while tracing contacts.

The number of daily positive cases in Missoula has surpassed even the highest figures seen in March, and health officials were dealing with 45 active cases and 265 close contacts as of Tuesday morning.

“We jump right on the interviews with each case, and that’s when we start identifying how many contacts we’ve had,” said Missoula City-County Health Officer Ellen Leahy. “What I can tell you is that we’re staring to see more contacts per case because there’s more reopening going on.”

Leahy said the number of contacts per case vary widely, from a handful of family members up to several dozen people in some workplace exposures.

Several restaurants have shut down the past week after an employee tested positive. A Missoula fire fighter also tested positive last week, and four more were added to the list on Tuesday.

“The Missoula Fire Department would like to reiterate that we are fully committed and prepared to continue to safely provide the same level of emergency services to the community that we always have,” Fire Chief Jeff Brandt said in a statement.

“Although we are acutely aware of the unease this might cause community members, our firefighters on the front lines are properly protected to render the safest aid possible. Our entire staff is following the guidelines and parameters established by the Missoula Health Department for testing, quarantine and return-to-work protocol.”

Leahy said health officials expected to find additional positive tests among close contacts, including those in local restaurants and the fire department.

“The kinds of contacts we’re seeing are contacts from family members who may have left the state and come back to the state,” said Leahy. “The coworkers in a large number of cases were wearing masks when dealing with the public. But when they get together as coworkers on breaks after work or at a party, they’re spreading it to each other.”

Missoula County officials on Tuesday said they’ve asked the County Attorneys Office to review laws that could permit an ordinance requiring facial coverings in public. That could take time, and other moves are being explored.

Leahy said they could include a return to more restrictive measures to protect the public and the local healthcare system. She said certain sectors could be targeted first if it comes to that.

“Might we have to step back? Yes. Might we have to step back locally? Yes. Might we have to step back in one sector? Yes,” she said. “What the governor might do if it continues to spread I can’t speak for, but this is what it’s like to live with a pandemic. We can’t go from open shut, open shut – we’d be doing it all year. We need to protect against its spread all the time and all year.”