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Health department strained as COVID surges in Flathead

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | September 22, 2020 7:00 AM

A surge in COVID-19 cases in Flathead County over the past week, which officials say can partially be attributed to Labor Day weekend activities, has strained the health department’s ability to relay case data to the state, perform contact tracing and other tasks associated with the new positives, a local health official said Thursday.

Lisa Dennison, infectious disease specialist for the Flathead City-County Health Department, told the Board of Health Flathead County has experienced an average of 20 to 30 new cases per day over the last week. Dennison said cases have “really been ramping up” and as of Thursday, department staff were monitoring well over 1,000 people

and more than 180 of those are considered “active.”

The number of new daily cases being displayed on the health department’s website differs greatly from those depicted by the state’s COVID-19 Task Force’s dashboard.

For example, on Thursday the state reported Flathead County had only six new cases, but the health department’s website showed that number is actually 29. As one other example, while Dennison said there are more than 180 active cases, the state shows as of Thursday, there were only 140.

The reason for differing reports could be due to a number of factors, officials said, including issues with the reporting process and system at the state level. But Dennison made it clear health department staff are overwhelmed, which is likely a major contributing factor.

“We have had some struggles with our data entry because we have been so inundated with cases,” Dennison said. She added the health department hopes to correct this issue soon, but contract tracing and other duties that will help contain the current outbreak are primary priorities at the moment.

Based on the county’s most recent online “community indicators” report for the week beginning on Aug. 7, the number of new cases per investigator per day was in the red at a level 3, the most dire ranking, which means each investigator, on average, is gaining six

or more cases per day. And according to past indicator reports, case investigations have been in the red since late August.

While cases have been climbing, hospitalizations have remained relatively stable based on community indicators for the health-care system capacity. On any given day in recent weeks, Kalispell Regional Medical Center has had anywhere between eight and 12 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

“It does fluctuate. Right now [Thursday] we are at five hospitalized, but if we talk tomorrow it could be 10,” said Tamalee St. James Robinson, interim health officer for the health department. Robinson and others briefly mentioned concerns surrounding the upcoming influenza season. While the hospital is able to handle the current number of COVID-19 patients, a spike for others in need of being hospitalized for the flu may strain resources. An annual flu clinic, hosted by the Flathead City-County Health Department,, is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 7 at the Flathead County Fairgrounds.