Montana Public Radio

Billings, Missoula Health Officials Say They're Ready For COVID-19

Mar 4, 2020

There are still no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Montana, but experts expect that will change. If and when it does, Missoula County health officials say they’re ready.

The Missoula City-County Health Department is preparing for the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, the same way communities prepare for wildfire or flood emergencies.

A working incident command team is in place.

A telephone hotline at 406-258-INFO, staffed with live operators, is now fielding calls from Missoulians with questions about the disease or wanting to report suspicious symptoms.

Health officials, schools, hospitals and emergency responders are now coordinating and communicating on a daily basis.

"We’ve actually been working on this for about a month in the background, even though we haven’t actually been out in the public eye," says Cindy Farr, who supervises the Missoula Health Department’s infectious disease office and is the local COVID-19 incident commander.

"But the trigger for really ramping things up was when we started seeing an increase in cases over in Washington state," she says.

Cindy Farr and her colleagues Wednesday briefed the Missoula City Council’s Public Safety and Health Committee. Farr says Missoula County gets an annual emergency preparedness state grant worth about $160,000. Those funds are being used for this unfolding coronavirus incident in a variety of ways, including new hires.

Missoula City Council President Bryan Von Lossberg; Adriane Beck, director, Office of Emergency Management; Cindy Farr, supervisor Missoula Health Department infectious disease office; Ellen Leahy, director Missoula City-County Health Dept; March 3, 2020.
Credit Edward O'Brien / Montana Public Radio

"Right now we’re starting off looking for three full time people to work in the call center and two additional full-time public health nurses," Farr says. "That could change as the need changes, but we’re just going to start off with that now."

KOMO news in Washington State reports that 12 of 30 firefighters and police officers in Kirkland who are quarantined after exposure to the COVID-19 virus are now showing "flu-like" symptoms.

Missoula City Fire Assistant Chief of Operations Brad Davis says, “There is a little bit of unknown. We’re relying on our 911 dispatch center to ask appropriate questions as they receive calls based on the symptoms of the caller, to give us a heads up if it’s a potential case where we should be taking precautions or not. And than other than that, just using our judgement upon our assessment if we need to take universal precautions and mask-up and put on the appropriate PPE [Personal Protective Equipment]."

Missoula health official Cindy Farr says most people sickened by COVID-19 get a cough and feel crummy for a couple of weeks. Those at highest risk suffer underlying respiratory conditions and/or are at least 60-years-old.

Across the state, the Billings is taking similar measures.

They are the Unified Health Command. They will lead the response when the coronavirus comes to Yellowstone County.

Representatives from RiverStone Health, Billings Clinic, Saint Vincent Healthcare and Yellowstone County Disaster and Emergency Services have been planning for complex, community-wide health events like this for nearly 20 years, says John Felton Yellowstone County’s Public Health Officer.

"We all know each other. We’ve worked together a long time. We’re used to working together. And we can fairly readily move into a shared management of a complex situation."

Yellowstone County’s Unified Command has begun conserving healthcare facility supplies like masks and gloves. It set up a public health information hotline at 406-651-6415 and is establishing response relationships with the state health and emergency services departments.

The members of UHC also have what are called pandemic flu plans — hospital specific blueprints outlining how to respond when a lot of people get very sick.

"Hospitals don’t build a huge amount of excess capacity," Felton says. "And so the question is, 'What would we do if there was a very large number of very severe cases that had to be hospitalized?' And the pandemic flu plans provide at least a blueprint for that.

"I think the fact that this is such a fluid situation prevents saying, like, this is absolutely what will happen. And I understand that people really want certainty, they want surety. That’s not really the world we live in. But we're also not starting from scratch."

Felton says one of the instances when the county activated its unified health command protocol was back in 2014-2016 to respond to a potential Ebola outbreak.

Felton urges everyone to be proactive with their health. Wash hands frequently, use a hand sanitizer that is 60 percent alcohol, cover your cough, stay home if you are sick and stay away from people who are ill.

"I think it’s important for people to be vigilant, but also be confident that everything that can be done to be ready for whatever happens, is being undertaken."

County health departments in Montana report having public health emergency preparedness plans in place to deal with any medical situation that may arise.

Editor's note: A previous version of this story contained an incorrect Missoula hotline telephone number. We regret the error.