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Coronavirus task force forms in Lincoln County

by Derrick Perkins Western News
| March 13, 2020 11:34 AM

As the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus sweeping the globe a pandemic, Lincoln County health officials announced they have formed a task force to address the illness locally.

Jennifer McCully, Lincoln County public health manager, told county commissioners Jerry Bennett (D-2) and Josh Letcher (D-3) on March 11 that the group is coordinating efforts between the medical center, emergency responders and other health professionals. Much of the talk between agencies and healthcare providers is over what information needs to get out to the public, McCully said.

Testing protocol remains another issue the group plans to tackle.

Right now, testing is linked to travel history — trips to China, Korea, Italy and Iran — and likelihood of exposure, McCully said. State health officials recently received the green light to begin testing for coronavirus, which leads to the disease known as COVID-19, but possess only 200 kits for all of Montana.

Since symptoms of coronavirus are similar to other infectious diseases, local officials hope to weed out potential cases by testing for other respiratory illnesses.

“Of those we’ve tested, they’ve come back [positive] on other issues,” McCully said.

As phone calls concerning the illness increase, McCully said officials were taking a triage approach in an attempt to keep people out of doctors’ officers. The most important question to ask, from the perspective of a 911 dispatcher or health department employee, is a potential patient’s previous whereabouts, she said.

“That’s why we’re really focusing on travel history. Influenza has other symptoms like body aches and COVID-19 doesn’t respond like that,” she said. “It goes straight to your lungs. It skips the upper respiratory and goes straight to the lungs.”

While Montana remains free of any confirmed cases, the advice for preventing the spread of the illness remains the same: residents should wash hands frequently; cover coughs and sneezes; stay home if unwell; and take steps to stay healthy, McCully said. If an individual believes they have contracted coronavirus, they should contact the health department first — unless the situation has risen to the level of an emergency.

Around the world, governments are taking extraordinary steps to contain the spread of the virus, even though WHO experts March 11 chastised officials for not doing enough to stop the illness. Globally, 120,000 people have contracted the disease. Cases in the U.S. surged earlier in the week, jumping to more than 1,000 by March 10, according to the Washington Post.

Colleges and universities across the nation are closing or switching to online classes. Conventions and seminars likewise have been cancelled or rescheduled, as have public events like upcoming St. Patrick’s Day parades in Boston and Chicago. In Washington, D.C., mass gatherings have been banned.

In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo created a containment area around the community of New Rochelle, which is home to the bulk of coronavirus cases in that state. Schools, churches and other large gathering spaces will be closed for at least two weeks, according to multiple media accounts. Officials plan to create a coronavirus testing facility to the community.

The National Guard has been asked to help supply the area with food and clean public spaces.

In Lincoln County, officials also have reached out to local businesses asking them to revisit sick leave and work-from-home policies, McCully said. For example, health officials would prefer employers temporarily suspend rules requiring doctor’s notes for absences.

“Let’s not send people to a [healthcare] provider if we don’t have to,” she told county commissioners. “We’re asking for leniency.”

Another example is extending sick leave to all employees, regardless of whether they have earned any yet, she said.

Bennett, though, cautioned McCully against setting precedent as officials prepare for coronavirus locally.

“It’s one thing to look at a new strain like this, but then to put things in place that complicate life going ahead for businesses and government,” he said. “We want to be careful, but we want to be prudent.”

McCully agreed that the situation represented a fine line. She said LabCorp, with branches in the area, is preparing to test for coronavirus. That will aid the community’s response immensely, McCully told county commissioners.

County Administrator Pat McFadden also told commissioners that officials are testing the jurisdiction’s continuance of operations plan, in the event that the pandemic becomes an emergency.

“We’re testing phones at home and how we’re going to work at home if we need to,” he said. “I took my phone home and tried to do it and was troubleshooting that over the last few days. There have been a few problems. I’m glad I did that.”