Helena health workers struggling to keep up with COVID response, data input

Posted at 9:45 AM, Nov 10, 2020

HELENA — Montana crossed the threshold of 40,000 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began on Monday. There were 15,771 reported active cases and 1,492 active hospitalizations in the state.

Lewis and Clark County was listed as having 1,139 active cases, but Lewis and Clark Public Health (LCPH) say that is dated information.

LCPH Disease Control and Prevention Division Administrator Eric Merchant said the data is accurate, but delayed compared to the most recent data in the county. Merchant says the current active case count in Lewis and Clark County is closer to 632 cases.

“This is really about the number of cases that we are seeing,” explained Merchant. “There’s so many cases coming through on a daily basis right now, it’s simply a matter of being able to get the data uploaded and changed in a timely manner," Merchant explained.

"While we have staffed up and I know that the state has staffed up to do this as well, it’s simply a matter of too many cases, too many contacts, too much disease locally," he continued. "The infection rates are off the charts.”

Merchant says they’re seeing some of the highest COVID infection rates in the country right now. Lewis and Clark County is seeing around 39 COVID cases a week per 10,000 people. The national average is 3 cases per 10,000.

Merchant says LCPH isn’t looking at any additional restrictions at this time beyond the already announced reduction of approved event size to 50 people maximum.

However, Merchant did say they were looking at possible enforcement of COVID mandates for businesses that had been contacted served times and were willfully ignoring them.

“Not folks that are out there doing the right thing and get themselves in a bind where people aren’t managing themselves or doing the right thing in their store,” said Merchant. “It’s those that are willfully doing it, that are out there saying masks don’t matter or aren’t supporting their employees and having them work sick.”

Merchant added those types of situations aren’t good for anyone which is why LCPH would then step in. Even without LCPH intervention, businesses have closed due to COVID.

“What we see is lots of businesses where we’re not out there shutting them down for COVID violations. They’re being shut down because they don’t have the staff to support the operation. And that’s simply because those staff are cases or caught up as contacts,” said Merchant.

Both LCPH and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) said Monday’s announcement from Pfizer about their COVID-19 vaccine is encouraging, but it needs to be taken with reservations.

“With Pfizer’s announcement of the efficacy data, we’re still waiting a couple of weeks for them to finish their safety data,” said Bekki Wehner, DPHHS Immunization Program manager. “Once that safety data is complete, it then needs to go to the FDA for thorough reviews.”

Even once a vaccine for COVID has been delivered to Montana, it will likely take months before it is available for the general pollution. The big factors being how much is supplied to the state, and how regularly new doses can be delivered.

Montana’s current plan is to have a three-phase rollout of the vaccine.

The first two months of the plan will focus on vaccinating those with the highest risk of having life-threatening infection, and front line workers like nurses and doctors. From there it would widen to other priority groups like individuals with underlying health conditions, firefighters and police. Then distribution would then widen to the general population.

DPHHS is basing their vaccine distribution plan on recommendations from the CDC.

There are also significant logistics that go into vaccine distribution. For example one of the Pfizer vaccine, one of the vaccine the state expects to receive, needs to be stored at a very low temperature of -80 C or -112 F.

“Additionally we look at how many doses we can get and how many a facility can store at one time,” said Wehner. “It’s important to point out too that to become completely vaccinated a person needs two doses. So if we get 50,000 doses, that would typically vaccinate around 25,000 people completely.”

DPHHS, local health departments, and medical providers across the state are already quarantining for the roll out once COVID-19 vaccine dosage becomes readily available.

Until then they are stressing that people wear masks, wash hands, and avoid any unnecessary gatherings. COVID hasn’t gone anywhere, and cases are continuing to trend upwards in the state.