The Butte-Silver Bow Health Department on Wednesday issued a new request to the community: Even with mild COVID-19 symptoms, don’t get tested. Stay home.
The health department asked those in close contact with the mildly symptomatic to stay home, too.
“The paradigm has shifted in our community,” Butte-Silver Bow Health Officer Karen Sullivan said. “It’s come to a point where we’re telling the community that the infrastructure we’ve built is not capable of handling what we need to do in regard to testing. Hopefully this is a wake-up call to the community.”
The request comes as the Southwest Montana Community Health Center, responsible for testing in the county, faces a staff shortage after 20 staff members tested positive over the last week.
“We are doing the best we can with decreased staffing, but we certainly can't meet the demand we are seeing," Serena Brewer, M.D., Southwest Montana Community Health Center’s medical director, said Wednesday. She added the request is designed to allow those with severe symptoms to get the care they need. “What’s happening is that so many people are calling wanting to be tested, that many truly sick people can’t get through.”
Regardless of symptoms, those who were contacted and told to get tested by the health department should still go in for tests, Sullivan and Brewer each confirmed.
In the long line to be tested at the Civic Center Wednesday, the Standard interviewed several people who fit this description — close contacts of the positive, sent by the health department for tests. They came from schools, day cares, workplaces and homes. Some had mild symptoms and some were asymptomatic.
The Standard also interviewed two people who were getting tested due to mild symptoms, but who had not been contacted by the health department. One person said he or she was getting tested to prevent spreading the virus at work.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Sarah Borduin, a registered nurse at Southwest Montana Community Health Center and the testing coordinator at the Civic Center, said the test site was yet to experience a staff shortage, and had no plans at present to turn those with mild symptoms away. In fact, testers had just posted signs saying they would test the symptomatic. What’s crucial, Borduin said, is that the best time to be tested is four days after the last exposure to a positive close contact.
Brewer confirmed that nobody would be turned away unnecessarily, but Brewer and Sullivan both asked members of the community to respect the new request regardless.
It’s not just medical staff shortages marring the process. As of a week ago, the county’s contact tracing personnel have been unable to keep up with the caseload, and were forced to prioritize, Sullivan said. Those who are high-risk, such as residents at long-term care facilities, and those affiliated with schools, are traced first. The department gets to the rest of the community as it’s able.
“Our time has come,” Sullivan said, adding that some larger communities in Montana reached the point three weeks ago where contact tracing and testing fell behind demand. “We are now triaging what we get to first.”
Those with severe symptoms — difficulty breathing, persistent pain or pressure in the chest, new confusion, inability to wake or stay awake, or bluish lips or face — are asked to seek immediate medical care by calling 911 or going to the emergency room.
Those with mild symptoms — fever, chills, cough, fatigue, muscle or body aches, headache, a new loss of taste or smell, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea — are being asked to call the community health center at 723-4075 to work through managing symptoms at home.
The change in testing policy coincides with two more deaths at Butte’s Copper Ridge Health and Rehab long-term care facility, bringing the facility to six deaths, and the county to a total of 20 deaths from the virus. Silver Bow County added 111 new cases on Tuesday for 636 active cases.
According to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, 89 percent of the county’s hospital beds were occupied on Wednesday. This ranks Butte-Silver Bow among the most threatened counties in the state.
Although cases are coming from every angle, Sullivan said cases originating in the workplace are spiking.
“There’s a work ethic and I’m proud of my town. I think my town has an incredible work ethic. People have a sniffle or a headache and go to work.” Sullivan said. “In this day and age those people can end up being COVID-positive and spreading it around their workplace.”
In addition to asking those with mild symptoms to stay home — and not get tested unless contacted — the health department is also asking employers to be understanding. This is all the more relevant after Wednesday, when Sullivan announced the medical community is no longer able to provide employers with a note certifying the employee’s absence.
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.