Missoula County reported 84 new COVID-19 cases since Thursday, another daily record, and the local health department is scrambling to try to reach close contacts with the recent surge.
There are currently 364 active COVID-19 cases with more than 1,160 close contacts in the county, according to an email from the Missoula City-County Health Department. Fourteen people were hospitalized in Missoula County on Thursday, six of which are county residents.
In its Friday update, the health department reported the following:
“Our COVID-19 Infectious Disease Team continues working hard conducting efficient and accurate case investigation and contact tracing. Monitoring active cases and notifying close contacts occurs seven days a week. If someone is identified as a close contact to a known case during case investigation, MCCHD will notify the close contact privately and individually as quickly as possible.
With that many close contacts, county workers are swamped in trying to speak with all of them by phone, according to county COVID-19 response team incident commander Cindy Farr.
“The main thing is we’re trying to get the word out that there’s a few things that the community can do to help us with this large increase in cases,” Farr said. “It’s hard on our team. We’ve been expanding and expanding but there’s a lot of people we need to contact. So one thing we’re asking of the public is to please just answer your phone.”
She said county staff will leave a voicemail on the phone of a person they’re trying to contact to let them know they’ve been in close contact with COVID-19. However, many people will try to then call a county worker back, but that worker is already on the phone trying to call other close contacts.
“The staff has moved on, so that starts a game of phone tag,” Farr explained. “So it takes longer for staff to reach somebody. We understand it’s political season and people are getting robocalls. But if you get a phone call from ‘406’ it’s really important you pick up so they can tell you you are a close contact.”
Farr said it’s the goal of the department to notify people within 24 hours, but sometimes it takes as long as 48 hours. And if people don’t answer their phones, it can take five to six days to make contact. Before staff members call close contacts, they have to complete what’s called a “case investigation” to determine close contacts, so that also takes up a big chunk of time.
Farr said she’s not aware of any large clusters of cases in Missoula County right now.
“There’s a little bit of an increase in community spread,” she said. “We’ve identified quite a few cases as close contacts (of other cases).”
She said there’s been “multiple” cases at “multiple” senior living facilities.
Farr also said she doesn’t think the University of Montana is a huge contributor to the recent rise in cases.
“If you look at the cases there, it’s proportional to the size of the population, so it’s about what we would expect,” she said. “I actually feel it’s possible that the rise in cases in the community is having an effect on cases associated with the university.”
According to an email sent to students on Friday by UM vice provost for student success Sarah Swager, UM had 75 active cases on Thursday.
“That accounts for about 25% of Missoula’s total active case load,” Swager wrote.
According to the county’s daily COVID-19 update, social distancing and masks are still important.
“It was brought to our attention that we had a misprint in some MCCHD communications earlier this week,” the update on Friday stated. “We have since corrected that information where it was published. Call 406-258-INFO (4636) Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. to connect with us to discuss COVID information or to connect with a screener/scheduler for COVID-19 testing if you’re a Missoula County resident currently experiencing COVID-compatible symptoms.
“Continue practicing those health and safety behaviors. Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently. Keep at least 6 feet of safe space between you and others as the environment permits. Wear a face covering that’s fully sealed around your nose and mouth. Remember that physical spacing does not replace face coverings — these are tools to be used together for maximum efficacy and safety.”
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