New coronavirus-related death reported as cases climb

Editor | September 11, 2020 7:00 AM

Cases of the novel coronavirus climbed in Lincoln County in recent days, amounting to one death over the weekend and reports of infections in the Libby school system and police department.

As of Sept. 9, the county had 10 active cases and one individual hospitalized, said Jennifer McCully, public health manager. One patient sick with COVID-19 died over the weekend, she said. No additional details about the fatality were immediately available. It marks the county's third death related to the virus.

Two of the individuals who recently tested positive for the coronavirus are students in the Libby Public School District, officials said. The others are described as: a symptomatic man in his 60s, a symptomatic man in his 30s and a symptomatic woman in her 60s. The latter two patients caught the virus while traveling outside of the county, officials said.

Libby Police Chief Scott Kessel confirmed that the spate of recent cases included at least one officer in his department. While updating Libby City Council on police activity during a Sept. 8 meeting, Kessel said the officer had limited contacted with other department personnel.

Still, Kessel reported he had been in close proximity with the individual and was, himself, homebound as he awaited testing results.

If the situation worsened, Kessel told city councilors he was prepared to work with other law enforcement agencies for temporary support.

“Worst case scenario, the [Lincoln County] Sheriff’s Office will coordinate with me to handle some routine calls for service,” he said at the meeting via the teleconferencing service Zoom.

Despite the uptick in cases, county health officials said Sept. 9 that there no longer is evidence of community spread in the county. Officials can link many of the new cases back through contacting tracing, McCully told the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners during a health department update this week.

Officials had declared a state of community spread earlier in the summer. The term means health workers can no longer identify sources of infection, which indicates the virus is spreading unchecked throughout a given community.

“The good news is all of our cases are tied to other cases, so there’s no community spread,” McCully told commissioners.

Asked about community surveillance testing, a measure the county employed until state labs became overwhelmed in July, McCully said it remained out of reach for local officials.

In July, the state reached an agreement with Montana State University to aid efforts to resume community surveillance testing. In the months since, McCully said local health officials have been given leeway to test teachers and other essential workers, but otherwise testing is limited to symptomatic individuals or known contacts of a patient.

“I’m just going to assume that’s not going to happen,” said County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1). “… [From] epidemiological standpoint, we’re just chasing the thing around.”

Peck also asked McCully about the lines of communication with Helena, particularly the state’s COVID-19 task force. McCully replied that the local health department worked with the state on releasing official documents, but very little else.

McCully told commissioners that the state task force is often behind the ball, releasing messaging well after an issue or question had been addressed on the local level. For example, she said the state was working on information regarding the reopening of schools.

Classes for most students in Lincoln County began in August.

“They’re working on school documents and school’s already back in session,” McCully said. “It’s too late for that.”

That led Peck to criticize the state and federal government response and the lack of coordination with Helena. He reported holding a long conversation with a member of the governor’s staff “voicing some frustration.”

“The inconsistencies, the lack of communication — I said, ‘It’s hard enough for our public health staff, but you pile this all on top of it and you’ve got citizens all amped up on this,’” Peck said.

Given the rapidity of the spread of bad information or misinformation, Lincoln County Health Department Director Kathi Hooper said they may soon eliminate commenting on the department’s social media page.

Comments stack up faster on the department’s Facebook page posts than the staff can respond to them, she said. Many come from out-of-county accounts or are responding with erroneous information, Hooper said.

Department staff will continue to post COVID-19 updates on social media, she said.