MISSOULA — Missoula community leaders are offering reassurances over the COVID-19 outbreak coming to Western Montana, but say "no one will escape the disruption" caused by the pandemic.
But in an unprecedented joint press conference, they say a concerted voluntary effort will help "flatten the spike" in cases here, and help "manage the disruption."
Missoula City-County Health Department staff, elected officials from the City of Missoula, Missoula County, and leaders of the University of Montana and Missoula County Public Schools explained what they're doing for COVID-19.
That includes implementing the Unified Command System common to major emergencies, and implementing plans already in place to deal with a community-wide crisis.
Health Officer Ellen Leahy there are no "unseen" coronavirus cases in the Missoula area, as testing of suspect cases continues at area hospitals. She said the focus now is to "flatten the spike" if positive COVID-19 cases are confirmed, and protecting the "vulnerable population" of older residents, and especially those with respiratory problems.
Incident Commander Cindy Farr of the Missoula City-County Health Department explained testing kits are becoming more available, although health care providers are still needing to rule out other problems like flu and cold symptoms first, before submitting coronavirus samples to the state.
Missoula Mayor John Engen and County Commissioner Josh Slotnick encouraged families and individuals, as well as small businesses, to review their own preparations, saying each plan will be a "little different"" depending on circumstances.
MCPS Superintendent Rob Watson said the district has no plans to close Missoula schools, but they are reviewing contingency plans. That could include limited closures of individual schools if a case develops in a particular building.
He says the district will cancel staff and student travel following Spring Break next week. Additionally, MCPS will close events where the community could attend, such as plays and concerts, although spring sports cancellations will be with the approval of the Montana High School Association.
MCPS spokesperson Hatton Littman says when it comes to Spring sports, practices can still happen, but they are waiting for Montana High School Association to make a formal ruling about canceling/postponing springs sports season. MHSA has not come out as of Friday afternoon with a decision.
MCPS will also cancel assemblies and other activities during the school day where large groups of students would gather, with the exception of lunch periods. The restrictions will last through March and April and then be reassessed, depending on the pandemic and medical advice.
UM President Seth Bodnar explained the university's decision switching to remote learning after Spring Break had been planned for several weeks. But he said the school is still focused on helping students complete their classes, even with more complicated coursework.
All of the leaders emphasized the need for everyone to wash their hands and practice good hygiene as a regular part of daily life, saying any "inconvenience" is worth the benefit.
To read what Missoula County Health Department advises click here.