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Coronavirus or COVID-19? Montana health expert explains importance of terms

Posted at 2:24 PM, Mar 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-12 16:24:10-04

BILLINGS — As COVID-19 makes its way through the United States, Montana health officials are stressing the importance of calling the virus by its proper name while giving an update on testing.

“I think it’s important that we use that terminology because certainly, people can have a coronavirus infection and not have COVID-19," said Yellowstone County Health Officer and RiverStone Health CEO John Felton.

He explained the coronavirus is a group of diseases, including many common illnesses treated every season. The COVID-19 virus is the name of this newest strain that the World Health Organization just classified as a pandemic.

Maryland officials said Wednesday that a Montana woman tested positive for COVID-19. She is in her 70s and is a part-time Lake County resident.

The woman contracted the virus outside Montana and has not been in the Treasure State since November 2019, which is outside the incubation period.

The Unified Health Command in Yellowstone County has put procedures in place at hospitals to evaluate possible COVID-19 positive patients.

The command is made up of Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare, RiverStone Health and Yellowstone County officials.

“We’ve got really clear processes that we execute consistently across all of our organizations for how we evaluate patients," said Felton, who leads the health command.

The procedures answer the questions of when doctors evaluate patients when doctors will perform a test, and how the test is collected and transported to Helena.

The trouble with COVID-19 is that it shares similar symptoms with influenza, Felton said. The symptoms for COVID-19 are shortness of breath, cough or a temperature above 100.4 degrees, Felton said.

“This is cold and flu season. There is a lot of stuff out there. The process really is to see if we can rule out other causes of these symptoms first," Felton said.

COVID-19 tests are in limited supply across the country. Felton said this means doctors can't test everyone who feels they have the virus.

The first step is to ask, "does this person have influenza? Can we rule out other respiratory diseases? If we go through that process, nothing shows up as causing the symptoms and that person still meets the case definition of fever, shortness of breath and cough. Then in our state, it is the responsibility of the local health agency to authorize COVID-19 testing," Felton said.

Felton said people should self-quarantine at home for 14 days and stay away from healthy people if a person has been exposed to infected people. After that, if a person has no symptoms, they can go back to their day-to-day lives. This advice is common with any infectious disease.

Felton added that if a person feels symptoms get worse, it's time to get to the doctor.

If a person tests positive for COVID-19, they will be placed in isolation at the hospital to reduce the sick person's exposure to healthy people.

As the Yellowstone County health officer, Felton has the authority to place people under quarantine or isolation, but he said most people will cooperate when asked.

“I can tell you that in the 16 years that I’ve been here we’ve done that one time. It is a very infrequent authority," Felton said.

The situation on COVID-19 changes by the hour. Felton said good, accurate information is key.

Additional information about coronavirus can be found on the CDC's website, including the following:

Outbreaks of novel virus infections among people are always of public health concern. The risk to the general public from these outbreaks depends on characteristics of the virus, including how well it spreads between people; the severity of resulting illness; and the medical or other measures available to control the impact of the virus (for example, vaccines or medications that can treat the illness). That this disease has caused severe illness, including illness resulting in death is concerning, especially since it has also shown sustained person-to-person spread in several places. These factors meet two of the criteria of a pandemic. As community spread is detected in more and more countries, the world moves closer toward meeting the third criteria, worldwide spread of the new virus.

It is important to note that current circumstances suggest it is likely that this virus will cause a pandemic. This is a rapidly evolving situation and CDC’s risk assessment will be updated as needed.

Current risk assessment:

  • For the majority of people, the immediate risk of being exposed to the virus that causes COVID-19 is thought to be low. There is not widespread circulation in most communities in the United States.
  • People in places where ongoing community spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been reported are at elevated risk of exposure, with increase in risk dependent on the location.
  • Healthcare workers caring for patients with COVID-19 are at elevated risk of exposure.
  • Close contacts of persons with COVID-19 also are at elevated risk of exposure.
  • Travelers returning from affected international locations where community spread is occurring also are at elevated risk of exposure, with increase in risk dependent on location.

CDC has developed guidance to help in the risk assessment and management of people with potential exposures to COVID-19.