Montana hits 12 COVID-19 cases

Montana hits 12 COVID-19 cases

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Twelve people within Montana's borders had tested positive for coronavirus by Wednesday night, as the governor's office announced three new cases in Gallatin County and one in Missoula County on Wednesday.

The Gallatin County health department had previously announced one of its cases Tuesday evening. 

The state public health laboratory had run tests for about 775 people by Wednesday night. That number does not include any tests health care providers sent to private labs. Local public health offices and the state Department of Public Health and Human Services are notified from private laboratories and health care providers about results from those tests.

The Missoula County patient is a man in his 50s and is in isolation as state and local health officials work to determine where he likely contracted the virus and with whom he has had close contact since.

Two of the cases in Gallatin County are both men in their 20s and one is a man in his 60s.

In a press conference Wednesday afternoon before the older man's case was announced, Cindi Spinelli, Gallatin County's Communicable Disease Program manager, said both of the men in their 20s self-isolated quickly and responsibly.

One of the men traveled to Europe recently, though Spinelli would not say where specifically, and suspected that he had COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. He self-isolated then was tested. He was isolated the entire time he was symptomatic.

The other man was notified in the middle of travel and got tested, and then self-isolated. He'd had close contact with a known case from someone else within the United States. The cases are not related, Spinelli said.

"We just wanted to acknowledge the diligence both of these individuals practiced that prevented the spread and exposure to other people," Spinelli said. She added health care workers who came into contact with the men had proper personal protective equipment.

Even with people following isolation or quarantine recommendations, Spinelli said Wednesday "These probably won't be the last cases in Gallatin or Montana and just to expect more in the future."

Technically Montana has 12 COVID cases assigned to it, as one of the men in his 20s from Gallatin County is classified as a New Hampshire case because the patient is a resident there. And another case for a woman in her 70s who was diagnosed in Maryland is assigned to Montana as the woman is a part-time resident here, though she hasn't been in the state since November.

Also Wednesday, the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that an individual who works on the second floor of the Max Sieben Baucus Federal Building in the Great Northern Town Center in Helena tested as a presumptive positive for COVID-19.

The website The Hill reported Wednesday that the EPA sent out an email Sunday to building employees about the test. By Sunday Montana had six cases within its borders.

The Hill said the email told employees they could take unscheduled leave or work remotely until April 3.

The federal General Services Administration, which owns the building, did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment about how the building would be cleaned.

Daily life in the state looks much different than it did a week ago, with public K-12 schools closed for at least the next two weeks, bars and gyms closed and restaurants offering take-out or delivery only in many cities and towns around the state and people dramatically altering their day-to-day routines to adhere to social distancing recommendations and suggested limits on gatherings of more than 10 people.

The U.S. Census Bureau said Wednesday it would suspend field operations, which includes leaving questionnaires at homes and training enumerators, for two weeks. The deadline to respond to the census is July 31, and making sure as many people as possible in Montana fill out the questionnaire is critical to secure federal funding that's based on population, as well as to determine whether the state would pick up a second congressional seat.

Josh Manning, media specialist with the Dallas Regional Census Office, said Wednesday in an email census employees in Montana are still reaching out to tribal, state, local government and other partners to work to promote turnout "during this choppy start to census field operations during a public health emergency."

A study from the Center for Urban Research shows about 14% of Montanans would normally get hand-delivered census packets from the field work that's being paused for two weeks. 

While people can fill out the census online at for the first time this year, not everyone in Montana has the internet and a portion of state residents rely on census forms left on their doors to respond. The census can also be done by phone at 1-844-330-2020.

In an email, Emilie Ritter Saunders director of communications and public affairs at the state Department of Commerce, said the Montana Complete County committee is ramping up efforts to help Montanans respond self-respond. That includes a new public service announcement and more digital messaging.

Asked if Montana Gov. Steve Bullock would consider requesting an extension on the July 31 deadline for responding to the census, Ritter Saunders wrote "all policy ideas are currently under consideration."

Bullock said Wednesday he would put into place measures to encourage access to health care over the phone or internet. That includes allowing patients and their doctors to communicate over phone or secure online systems, which is a change from current policy that only allows for tele-medicine through video chat.

Bullock is also waiving a requirement that those on Medicaid establish face-to-face relationships with primary care providers, as well allowing Medicaid to pay for tele-medicine services even if a patient and provider are in the same community.

Those changes begin March 20. Bullock encouraged private insurance providers to follow suit. The changes came after Bullock spoke with the Montana Hospital Association, the Montana Medical Association and the Montana Primary Care Association.

Starting March 23, the state will pay for access to COVID-19 testing and treatment for the roughly 6% of the state's population who are uninsured, and made changes to hasten unemployment payments to those who lose their jobs because of the pandemic and aid to small businesses affected.

On Wednesday, leaders of the state’s Emergency Coordination Center (SECC) and Joint Information Center (JIC) invited members of the media to tour their operations at Fort Harrison. About 46 people work at the JIC, seven days a week and roughly 11-12 hours a day. The center serves as a coordination hub for local emergency operation center at the local level.

The SECC, which also coordinates responses to things like floods and wildfires, designates its response level on a scale of 1 to 5, with most day-do-day operations classified at a Level 5. It's at a Level 2 now.

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