News & Features

Officials Describe Efforts to Curb Exposure After Flathead Confirms First COVID-19 Cases

KRH employee who tested positive for coronavirus potentially exposed 14 patients and nine employees; Illinois man had “limited contact”

A Kalispell Regional Healthcare employee who tested positive for COVID-19 after traveling out of state potentially exposed 14 patients and nine employees before he was instructed to quarantine at home, officials said Saturday, while an Illinois man who tested positive for the disease after visiting Montana had limited contact with the public and is resting in isolation.

The two diagnoses were announced Friday afternoon and mark the first positive test results in Northwest Montana, bringing the state’s total confirmed COVID-19 cases to 19. The Illinois resident who tested positive remains in Flathead County but will not be counted among the state’s tally of diagnoses, according to Public Health Officer Hillary Hanson of the Flathead City-County Health Department.

In a conference call on Saturday morning, Hanson along with officials from Kalispell Regional Healthcare (KRH) provided a detailed timeline surrounding both individuals — an Illinois man in his 50s and the local physician who is in his 30s — and described measures to limit their exposure pathways to others.

Dr. Jeff Tjaden, an infectious disease physician and member of KRH’s incident command team, said the physician employee traveled out of state on March 11 alone and by car and returned to the Flathead Valley on March 13. At that point, KRH had implemented algorithms regarding travel and quarantine procedures for employees that were widely distributed.

On March 16, the physician arrived at work with no symptoms but reported a sore throat to the hospital’s employee health services later in the afternoon. He also disclosed his out-of-state travel. The physician was not tested for COVID-19, however, because he did not meet Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria, Tjaden said. The physician did not have a fever or cough, did not have any respiratory problems, wore a mask and gloves at work, and was told to report any additional symptoms.

On March 17, the physician again arrived at work and went through KRH’s employee screening process. Again, the employee had no fever or additional symptoms and continued to wear a mask and gloves and take his temperature throughout the day.

On March 18, the physician interacted with one patient but maintained an appropriate distance for exposure, Tjaden said. He contacted employee health services, determined he should be tested and went home at lunch. The next day, KRH officials received word from the Flathead City-County Health Department that the physician’s test had returned positive for COVID-19.

“We immediately began contact investigations to determine which patients and health care workers may have been exposed,” Tjaden said, adding that workers identified as potentially having been exposed were sent home to quarantine. The employee who tested positive has been in home isolation.

“All potentially infected employees have been contacted,” Tjaden said. “If you have not been contacted you likely have not been exposed.”

All suspected hospital areas the individual worked in have been cleaned appropriately and are available for use, Tjaden said.

Because health care workers are on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic, Tjaden said it’s not uncommon for them to be exposed. In Montana, two health care professionals in Yellowstone County also tested positive for the disease.

“Not only in our state but throughout the world, health care workers make up a significant portion of the disease because they are the ones on the front lines,” Tjaden said.

Dr. Doug Nelson, chief medical officer at KRH, did not disclose where in the hospital the physician worked or where he traveled, but said it was not to a high-risk area and did not include Idaho or Washington.

In recent days, Nelson said KRH employees traveling outside of Flathead County have been instructed to self-quarantine at home for 14 days. The physician’s travel came before that policy was implemented, Nelson said, and did not include “a particularly high-risk area.”

KRH officials said they anticipate the possibility of additional positive cases given the exposure from the employee, but are awaiting test results.

According to Hanson, the Illinois resident was screened by health care workers for respiratory problem in his vehicle at one of KRH’s facilities and has been in isolation since his test. Health care workers at the Flathead City-County Health Department have conducted “contact tracing” and contacted anyone who might have been exposed.

“If you have not been called you are not considered a close contact,” Hanson said.

To expedite patient screening, KRH has opened two respiratory screening facilities at either end of the Flathead Valley that are reserved strictly for people who are referred by a health care provider or clinic.

One site location is at the Family Health Care walk-in location in Kalispell. Another is at the Flathead Valley Orthopedic Clinic building in Whitefish. Both locations are staffed by Kalispell Regional Medical Center and North Valley Hospital staff and are identified with “Respiratory Screening Facility” signage.

The Flathead City-County Health Department has closed bars, restaurants and fitness centers to the public for at least 10 days in an effort to fight the coronavirus pandemic, effective as of Friday morning. The order allows restaurants to continue offering take-out and delivery services, a safety measure many businesses have resorted to on their own accord. It does not impact grocery or convenience stores, although convenience stores with combined restaurants are required to close their dining rooms.

Flathead County now joins a number of other communities across the state in ordering bars and restaurants to close or change how they serve customers.

Hanson encouraged members of the public to continue to isolate at home and practice social distancing. She said no additional control measures would be implemented at this time.

“Right at this moment, we are comfortable with the restrictions we have in place,” Hanson said. “But I will not say that additional restrictions will not come.”

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