Testing is critical as we move toward normalcy

| April 28, 2020 8:51 AM

All aspects of our lives have undergone upheaval this past month, leaving most confused about what our future holds as we continue to adjust to life with coronavirus.

First and foremost, we are fortunate to reside in a social and geographic setting where, so far, we have escaped the tragedy due to COVID-19 that struck other areas of the U.S. and world. During this period of physical distancing, our community and businesses have been remarkable in their efforts to help prevent the potential spread of infection.

The negative effects on our social and economic lives resulting from more extreme physical distancing have been offset by what has been accomplished across the U.S. to significantly reduce the mortality that otherwise would have been devastating. We cannot lose sight of the fact that COVID-19 is causing up to ten times the death rate that currently occurs with influenza, predominately in persons over 60 and those with compromising health conditions.

We now must look at taking the steps to cautiously reduce restriction in activities, allowing our communities to increasingly revitalize. The period of shutdown has created critical space to understand the threat of COVID-19, slow its spread, make significant changes in our personal behaviors, and allow the public health and healthcare system time to prepare to deal with the viral challenge, from prevention of larger scale epidemic to treatment of those that might become infected and ill.

So how do we move forward? Without an effective treatment or vaccine expected for at least a year, we are left with maintaining the personal and social behaviors that are most essential to limiting spread of the virus. This includes hand washing, covering our coughs and sneezes, and staying home when sick. Varying degrees of physical distancing also will be necessary as recommended by the Lincoln County Health Department as it responds to changing levels of viral spread.

How do we plan to measure the degree of viral spread in our communities? Testing is the answer.

COVID-19 will be with us for many years. The hope is that increasing immunity will develop across our population and, better yet, an effective vaccine will reduce its impact. We should always assume the virus is around our community. This is based on the observation that perhaps as many as half of those infected are not ill, but continue to spread the virus.

Ongoing robust COVID -19 testing of all persons, whether ill or healthy, is essential for containing the rapid spread of the virus. An out-of-control epidemic would increase the threat to our proportionally large high-risk community members and overwhelm our ability to provide care.

What is the Lincoln County Health Department’s plan for testing? The current goal is to test over 1,000 people in south Lincoln County during the physical distancing order, and we are approximately halfway there.

Whether ill or without symptoms, people interested in undergoing a COVID-19 screening test can schedule a time by calling the county’s information line at 406-293-6295. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, signed into law in March, 2020, mandates that everyone can receive a free screening. If you are concerned about your insurance covering the test or you are uninsured, call 406-444-7605 for assistance.

What are the instructions after having a throat swab taken? If you are ill or may have had direct contact with a person with a known COVID-19 infection, then you must remain in self-isolation pending test results (this can last between two and three days). If you are healthy and have no known contact with an infected person then you may return to work or regular activity while awaiting test results.

This first round of testing will provide some idea as to the prevalence of COVID-19 in Lincoln County.

More importantly, we can isolate those that have COVID-19 infections and aggressively trace their contacts for quarantine and subsequent testing. This activity informs us about the level of spread. If done quickly and extensively, tracing and tracking — along with varied forms of physical distancing — have been shown to significantly slow viral spread.

The challenge is to continue to test monthly at the same (1,300 tests/month) level well into the future. It will require the cooperation of everyone, whether ill or well, to make sure we can maintain effective COVID-19 surveillance through testing.

Keeping a control on the spread of the coronavirus will allow us to continue moving forward, allowing businesses to stay open and the economy to recover. It will make another painful shutdown unlikely.

Please call to participate in COVID-19 testing — do it for all of us and we’ll work to keep the community as updated as possible too.

The author serves as the Lincoln County Health Officer.