Missoula health officials concerned by delay in test results; rapid testing planned

Cindy Farr, head of the pandemic response for the Missoula City-County Health Department, center, and Health Director Ellen Leahy, right, expressed frustration and concern by the growing delay in test results during a briefing on Wednesday. (Missoula Current file photo)

The Missoula City-County Health Department on Wednesday expressed frustration over a growing delay in test results and the problems it poses when tracing potential contacts and keeping COVID-19 cases manageable.

The delay stems from a backlog at test labs both in and outside the state, and it has grown to as long 14 days. Health Officer Ellen Leahy said that delay has challenged the county’s response to the virus.

“Two weeks ago, I could have told you we were in the golden hour of testing in order to identify a case, to isolate a case, to identify contacts and to quarantine contacts,” Leahy said. “Our goal is 24 hours from identification of the case to quarantine of the contacts. We were meeting that even when it was busy.”

But Leahy said testing labs both in and outside Montana are at full capacity, prompting delays in test results. Tests taken a week ago at the Missoula County Fairgrounds still aren’t back, Leahy said.

The delay is holding up the county’s control measures, including the isolation of an infected patients, the tracing of known contacts and the quarantine of those contacts.

“I have no words for it. It’s very disappointing,” Leahy said. “We are in the process of retaining a quick test, where we can get results more immediately. It will have other draw backs, but it’s a priority for us to be able to identify and remove from regular circulation and work those folks during the period that they’re contagious. That’s absolutely critical.”

Leahy said the county’s number of active cases is down from where it was two weeks ago. The number of active contacts also are down from a high of around 500 to roughly 300.

Compared to other large counties in Montana, Leahy said Missoula is doing well. While Yellowstone County has recorded 584 cases thus far and Gallatin County 489 cases, Missoula County has just 130 cases.

It’s also one of just three cities or counties to have implemented a mandatory face mask order – a rule that was unanimously adopted last week by the local Board of Health. The health department has been getting a mix of complaints and questions over the past few days, though they said the program is working as intended.

“People are pretty interested in how we go about talking to people when we get a complaint,” said Shannon Therriault, director for environmental health in Missoula. “What we find, when we go out and give people that personal attention, we really are getting good compliance. People really are doing what they need to do. I know it’s not 100% across the board, but the vast majority are complying.”

Cindy Farr, the incident commander for the local pandemic response, said health officials expected to see the number of cases climb after the state entered Phase 2 of its economic reopening on June1.

While case counts have grown both locally and across the state, Farr said health officials are working to ensure the situation remains manageable while protecting the local healthcare system.

“We have been reporting daily about the number of hospitalizations we have here, and we are keeping a close eye on the number of available ICU beds, ventilators, personal protective equipment and all those things, because it’s going to need to be our priority,” Farr said. “We are a regional healthcare hub.”

Farr said the health department also is working closely with Missoula County Public Schools and the University of Montana as they prepare to return to classroom instruction this fall.

“We are definitely thinking toward the future,” she said. “But we are starting to see a real backup in getting test results back, which is extremely concerning. It’s one of the things we have to try to control this virus. We are looking at other possibilities for testing as we see our labs getting more and more backed up.”