COVID-19: Missoula health officials tracking close contacts, seeking registered nurses

The Missoula City-County Health Department is working to ramp up its nursing ranks while tracing individuals who may have come into contact with two local patients who tested positive for the COVID-19 virus over the weekend.

Health officials on Sunday said they’ll continue to rely upon voluntary closures and self-distancing measures before moving to more restrictive measures, if and when they become necessary.

“We want to see the voluntary closures,” said health officer Ellen Leahy. “We’re going to use orders and different guidance as this progresses, but if we’re getting a great response from voluntary initiatives, we are watching that and will see who and in what arenas we may to do more.”

On Saturday, the state confirmed that two Missoula County patients had tested positive for the virus. Commissioner of Higher Education Clayton Christian later said he was one of them, and he speculated that he contracted the virus during a Board of Regents meeting last week in Dillon.

One other attendee at the meeting – a Silver Bow County resident – also tested positive. The health department said it’s unable to release the identity of others who may have come into close contact with the patients due to privacy issues.

Health Officer Ellen Leahy discusses local efforts to lessen a potential spike in COVID-19 cases during a press briefing on Sunday, March 15, 2020. Two patients have tested positive in Missoula County, and health officials are working track down others who may have come into contact with them. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

“Our team is actively working on determining who the contacts are to those folks, and we’ve had very good cooperation from the public who were involved in close contact,” said Cindy Farr, who is leading the local response.

The two Missoula County residents who have tested positive for the virus will remain in the isolation of their homes until they receive two negative tests. The other contacts will be quarantined in their homes for the 14-day incubation period and monitored for symptoms.

“We’re working with the two patients to determine when their symptom onsets began, and who they may have been in contact with during the time they were contagious,” said Farr.

While presence of the virus in the local population may be alarming, Farr said, the health department, hospitals and other partners are working to flatten the curve, or lessen a potential spike in cases.

While other cases of the virus will likely surface, precautionary measures could slow it down. But it’s not yet known how quickly the virus can spread if not isolated to a few individuals early in the outbreak.

“This is not yet considered community spread at this point because we know both cases were the result of traveling outside of our community,” said Farr. “We’re very early in this pandemic, so we’re not sure what that will look like moving forward.”

Health officials said local hospitals have roughly a dozen respiratory isolation units available if needed. The county also is looking to hire more nurses, saying they will be needed as the virus spreads and more individuals test positive.

But while the call for nurses was posted two weeks ago, Farr said, the response has been underwhelming. She urged registered nurses, retired or otherwise, to contact the health department.

“We do expect this is going to generate quite a work load, so we’re trying to get extra staff in to help with that,” said Farr. “At this point in time, we know our healthcare system is going to be very taxed with this pandemic happening. A lot of our nurses are already working within our healthcare system. We’re reaching out to see if there’s any retired nurses who may be interested.”

While two patients in Missoula County have tested positive for COVID-19, health officials haven’t seen any signs of community spread, according to Cindy Farr, who is leading the local response. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

A large pertussis outbreak occurred last spring, and health officials relied upon established research in responding to and mitigating that respiratory illness.

But COVID-19 is new and it remains something a mystery.

“We have to base our response on the guidance that’s available and our own knowledge of how we’ve responded to other pandemics and outbreaks in the past,” said Farr. “When we look at our pandemic and influenza plan, there are parts of that we can implement in response to this coronavirus.”

But given its novelty, Farr also noted challenges. It’s unknown if COVID-19 is seasonal like influenza, which typically dissipates in the spring.

“That wasn’t the case with H1N1 – we still saw cases coming in over the summer, but it wasn’t in the numbers we were getting in the winter time,” said Farr. “That’s one of the challenges with this virus. We don’t know if there’s a season for it. There are parts of our plan we’re able to implement, but there are definitely challenges with that because of the unknowns.”

Follow this link for contact details and other information at the City-County Health Department.