Community spread now evident in Missoula; healthcare worker tests positive

Health officials on Monday said they’re now seeing signs of community spread in Missoula, and at least one local healthcare worker has tested positive with COVID-19.

Cindy Farr, who is leading the pandemic response for the Missoula City-County Health Department, said 12 cases have been confirmed in Missoula, including three over the weekend.

With community spread now evident in the three most recent cases, she expects the number of cases to begin climbing.

“The one big thing that’s changed since the weekend is that we are now seeing signs of community spread,” said Farr. “We have cases where the exposure of COVID-19 can longer be traced to another positive case or connected to travel.”

When a test is confirmed positive by the state, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services contacts the county. County health officials then contact the patient to determine where they may have contracted the virus, and to understand who else they may have exposed.

Marks on the sidewalk represent six feet, the recommended distance between customers at retail businesses in Missoula. (William Munoz/Missoula Current)

“Up until this weekend, we’ve been able to trace all of our cases to travel out of Missoula County, or contact with another confirmed positive case,” she said. “The situation has now changed.”

Montana had 171 confirmed cases on Monday morning – a number that increases each time state health officials release test results, which they do twice a day. Signs of community spread suggests the virus will likely infect a greater number of people in Missoula.

“The community spread means we’re going to likely start seeing more cases in Missoula, and we could potentially see a very rapid increase in the cases we have here,” said Farr. “It also means that precautions like social distancing are much more important than ever.”

Farr said a local healthcare worker also tested positive for the virus. The individual’s name or place of work was not released, though Farr said the person has been isolated and will be monitored daily by the health department.

She said the affected healthcare agency is following all recommendations and is cooperating with public health officials. It’s not known how many people the individual may have exposed to the virus.

“This is not an unusual thing when we’re in an outbreak situation where a healthcare worker would test positive for the disease,” said Farr. “They’re on the front lines and have a much higher risk of exposure than even our general population. There’s likely going to become more healthcare workers that become affected over the course of this outbreak.”

Farr added that healthcare workers screen for the virus before each shift.

“If you’ve recently been to a healthcare provider in the last few weeks, don’t have any symptoms and have not been contacted by the health department, you’re not considered a close contact to this person,” Farr said. “If we feel you would be a close contact to this person, the health department would contact you.”

Last week, Farr said local healthcare providers were frustrated by a shortage of supplies needed to test individuals, which could lead to a disparity in the number of reported cases in varying counties.

She said Monday the shortage remains and only certain individuals were being tested.

“We’re still seeing a gap in our supply chain to our locations here in Missoula right now,” she said. “The tests are still being prioritized for people who work in high-risk settings or fall into high-risk categories for having bad outcomes. We are hoping to see that supply chain open up in the foreseeable future.”

Local health officials will continue to withhold names of patients, along with any other details that could lead to their identification, Farr said. That’s been a source of frustration among some in the community, who have sought more information regarding the virus and their own health, given the current shortage of testing.

“We don’t only have HIPAA laws, but the government privacy act,” Farr said. “It prohibits us from releasing any information that could potentially identify a patient.”