The pandemic is surging nationally, across the state and locally.
Last month the number of active COVID-19 cases in Ravalli County grew steadily from a low of three on September 8th to 23 active cases by the end of the month. Ten days later, on Friday, October 9, the number of active cases reported by the Ravalli County Health Department had grown to 65. The next day, an additional 24 new cases were added.
It’s what happens after the new cases are reported – the contact tracing and the quarantining – that makes the growing number and rate of new cases so alarming. The Public Health Department was able to contact 18 out of those 23 new cases on Saturday, but tracking down the people on the list of potentially exposed contacts can be a very daunting and time consuming task. At this point, the Public Health Department is directing people who are considered close contacts to a positive case to go to the Ravalli County webpage for instructions on how to proceed if they have been exposed. The usual minimal demographic information was lacking from this special report.
The valley’s schools are feeling the impact as one after the other has closed for a short period over Covid-related incidents and implemented building sanitization procedures.
Hamilton High School was shut down last Thursday while some contact tracing took place over a recent case of COVID-19. School District Superintendent Tom Korst said that it was their first time dealing with the County Public Health Department over a contact tracing process and they were not sure about how long the process might take. He said they actually got done with the tracing fairly early in the day.
Korst said that the school district provides the county health department with information if there is a case in the school and their close contacts and then the Health Department gives them direction about who may need to be quarantined. He said the county has done a good job at it.
According to Korst, if there is a positive case, either a student or a teacher, they trace down everyone who may have been within 6 feet of that person for at least 15 minutes. He said that he believed the most pressing issue is with the staff. If a teacher is deemed at risk from the exposure they are quarantined. He said this could happen to a teacher even in their off hours and traced to a case outside the school. He said staffing issues are definitely going to be a problem as this pandemic continues.
Finding help is also becoming more difficult. Some people are hesitant to take the risk of exposure that comes with exposure to even a small number of students. Every school district in the county has increased its substitute teacher pay by a similar rate over the last few months as a result. The Hamilton School District has even thrown in an incentive of a $200 bonus after the 10th day of substituting (they do not have to be consecutive) and another $200 bonus after ten more days, and another bonus every 10 days after that. There is even a finder’s fee for any employee who finds a substitute who will teach for ten days. The finder gets $100.
Korst said that the school is being sanitized every night but that if there is a positive case they could use an air purifier tablet. He said it was kind of like a setting off an air bomb, but it does clean the atmosphere, making the room usable after a few hours.
Korst said that the elementary schools have restructured classes and reduced class sizes and are working in cohorts, that is small groups of the same kids that don’t interact with other students. He said managing the high school is more complex where students change classes often and everyone moves around. He said the school still has the on-line option but they do ask for a nine-week commitment.
“We are just doing the best we can,” said Korst. He said they have used the Covid relief funds to hire more staff and reduce the classroom sizes and developing constant cohorts for everyone throughout the day. Twelve to fourteen in a classroom is easier to distance than 18 to 24, he said.
“We will be holding on,” said Korst. He said he himself would be subbing that day in the school lunchroom. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment,” he said. He said the principals were also subbing every day.
Korst said other issues will also have to be addressed such as community rental of facilities and the spectators at the sports events.
“We are going to have to manage all this in some way,” said Korst.
Korst said that he had hopes that they could possibly get through the contact tracing that will probably be a recurrent event without having to close the school down at all, but that it looked very likely that they will be seeing more of this as cases around the county increase.
Stevensville School District Superintendent Dr. Bob Moore said that the school was contacted on Wednesday about the need for contact tracing. He said the school was closed on Thursday and Friday, but not so much over the contact tracing itself. “We could’ve gotten through that,” he said, “but it was the lack of any substitutes on short notice to replace the teachers that were going home because they were close contacts.”
He said over the weekend they received notice of another positive case in the K-3 building and converted one teacher and 18 of her students to on-line learning because they were all identified as close contacts of a positive case.
Moore said that the school was re-opened on Monday but minus those students and staff that were identified as close contacts to a positive case. He said the contact tracing on the third grade class would probably be completed by the end of the day on Monday.
Moore stated in a letter to the parents and community, “I fully understand the difficulties school closures pose to the entire community. As such, it is always the intent of the Stevensville Public Schools to remain open for scheduled instruction. Closures for any reason present families with difficult challenges that we want to help families and the community avoid. Using the best available information, we will absolutely work to minimize any and all school closures.”
As of 10:30 a.m. Monday, Lone Rock School had also been notified of a positive case and some middle school students were home, according to Moore. He said it is happening in big schools and small schools, in Darby, at Lone Rock and in Missoula and Kalispell. It’s not a size of the school issue, he said, it’s a problem of staffing.
“There are people who will go out and eat at a restaurant and others who won’t,” said Moore. “And there are people who will substitute in a school and people who find it too risky.”
He said the teachers have been very understanding. He said some have to work on-line.
“We’re open for business and striving to stay open,” he said. “We are doing our darnedest to keep the doors open so working parents can stay at their jobs and help the economy.”
The Town of Stevensville has also been impacted by a positive case and most of its Public Works staff were quarantined over the weekend. With only one person qualified to run the town’s water system, a special arrangement was made to allow for him to continue working by himself at the facility while under quarantine. Mayor Dewey said that the positive contact was discovered late Friday, October 2 and he discovered on Saturday that the Public Health Department was not open on the weekends. He consulted authorities in Missoula and decided to quarantine the entire Public Works staff. Most of the staff was released from quarantine on Monday, October 5 after consulting with Public Health officials. The facility and town hall were closed over the weekend and sanitized.
As of Monday, October 12, Montana reports a cumulative total of 19,125 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 423 new cases, 7,432 active cases, and 11,481 patients considered recovered. State officials also report that 904 of the cases have resulted in hospitalizations, with 291 patients currently hospitalized. There have been 212 Montana deaths attributed to the disease.
Governor Bullock said last week at a press conference that local governments have the tools to limit the spread “and that’s where I think locally elected leaders have to be stepping up to say we can do more.”
“This can’t all be solved from Helena,” said Bullock, “There’s local responsibility here to do what they can to curb the spread of this virus.”
Meanwhile, the 2020 Montana Nurses Association (MNA) House of Delegates on October 9 unanimously passed a resolution addressing the coronavirus pandemic.
The MNA stated in a press release that Montana nurses are very aware the US has not prioritized the ability to prepare for and respond to global public health crises, leaving already under-resourced state, county, and city health departments without a meaningful and appropriate epidemic response infrastructure in the federal government to protect people in our communities and our nation and to reduce the risk around the globe. MNA supports measures that: scientifically and meaningfully limit the spread of COVID-19; call for national policy for Covid testing and contact tracing; urges nurses through collective bargaining or other advocacy abilities to address sick leave/absences due to Covid exposure while on duty to prevent wage loss; support ADA accommodation for nurses and healthcare workers that are high risk; work collaboratively with national affiliates such as American Nurses Association (ANA) and the American Federation of Teachers, Nurses and Health Professionals (AFT-NHP) to advocate for restoration of the federal budget cuts to improve the U.S. public health infrastructure; urges Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to adopt an infectious disease standard.