Missoula health department not yet calling for mandatory restrictions ahead of virus

Ross Miller, chair of the Missoula City-County Board of Health, said the local quarantine and isolation policies are up to date and based on federal law. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The Missoula City-County Health Department will continue to rely on voluntary restrictions as a tool to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus, though it could consider mandatory changes at a later date.

Local health officials joined a panel of community leaders on Friday to discuss their plans for the virus’ likely arrival Missoula. While no cases have been detected, experts believe it’s just a matter of time.

“One of the main management tools of pandemic when it actually hits, you get a big curve of cases because we’re all theoretically susceptible,” said health officer Ellen Leahy. “With this one, you don’t see the cases until people are really sick. We are aware there are unseen cases out there.”

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday declared a state of emergency and on Friday, President Donald Trump declared a national emergency, freeing up funding for an expanded response.

While it may be impossible to stop the virus from entering the local population, health officials said Friday, they’re now looking to lessen its impact and spread, and they’re working with other agencies toward that outcome.

Missoula City-County Health Office Ellen Leahy discusses the local response to the COVID-19 virus on Friday, March 13, 2020. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

The City of Missoula has already shifted to what Mayor John Engen described as a business continuity plan, and Missoula County Public Schools is prepared to implement closures. The University of Montana will shift to online-only classes after spring break, and area hospitals are prepared to deal with a potential influx of patients.

Leahy said mandatory closures aren’t yet necessary, though they could become so once the virus appears in the local population with a positive test. Health officials have said that once one test comes back positive, other cases are likely.

“We’re going to stay away from making those (mandatory) decisions for you until such a time they become absolutely necessary,” she said. “If we have things we need to close, such as schools, that should happen using evidence, time and a way that’s absolutely warranted and feasible, otherwise we haven’t protected our healthcare facilities.”

Health officials said policies on quarantine and isolation are required by state and federal law, and all local policies are current. Area hospitals continue to adjust their protocol as more testing becomes available and case-finding expands.

“We don’t have any cases in Missoula County, but we know that’s probably going to change in the foreseeable future,” said Cindy Farr, a health officials who is leading the local response. “When someone identifies to us they’ve been in contact with a case or traveled to an area where we know there’s been a lot of spread, we ask those people to self isolate for the 14-day incubation period for this disease.”

The COVID-19 virus is the first pandemic known to be caused by the emergence of a new coronavirus. In the past century, according to the CDC, there have been four pandemics caused by the emergence of novel influenza viruses.

No vaccine is currently available for the new strain, though testing has become more widely available in recent days. But Montana is deep in flu season and the test kits are limited, so those who don’t feel well are asked to coordinate a visit to their healthcare provider.

Cindy Farr, who is leading the local response to the COVID-19 virus, said it’s likely a matter of time before the first case is detected in Missoula. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“Testing this week has become much more available in our state and community,” said Farr. “We’re seeing a lot of flu. We want the providers to rule out the diseases we’re seeing a lot of before we start running tests for this disease we have not yet seen.”

If a test comes back positive, Farr said, those individuals we be asked to self isolate. They will be required to remain isolated until passing two negative tests. That could take a few weeks for some or up to six weeks for others.

Farr urged those most at risk to avoid large crowds and others to be considerate of those who are vulnerable. Nationally as of Friday, 1,629 cases have been detected in the U.S, and 41 have died, according to the CDC.

“Those are the ways we can protect other people in our community that might be at higher risk of developing severe disease from this,” said Farr.

Given the rapidly evolving situation, the City-County Health Department plans to keep its phone line open this Saturday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. to answer questions from the public. That number is 258-INFO.