Coronavirus is continuing to spread across the state and into more rural communities.
On Wednesday, Lincoln and Glacier counties reported their first positive cases of COVID-19, the deadly virus that has sickened tens of thousands in the United States and killed more than 1,000 nationwide.
As of Thursday morning, there were 71 cases of the virus in Montana and five in Flathead County, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. While cases of the virus are sprinkled across the state in both urban and rural communities, Gallatin and Yellowstone counties have become hot spots, with 24 and 13 cases, respectively.
In Glacier County, a man in his 60s tested positive for COVID-19. In Lincoln County, a man in his 70s tested positive after he had recently engaged in out-of-state travel.
The first case in Lincoln County is particularly concerning because of the high number of people with asbestosis, a respiratory disease stemming from asbestos contamination that has sickened thousands and killed hundreds in the last few decades.
“For the Libby community, which remains under a public health emergency as designated by EPA, we experience the highest rate of asbestos mortality in the United States,” said Dr. Brad Black, medical director of the Center for Asbestos Related Diseases (CARD) and the Lincoln County Health Officer. “Now with the COVID-19 infections, the current population is at very high risk of increased mortality and morbidity above and beyond what other communities might experience.”
According to the CARD Clinic, there are more than 3,000 Lincoln County residents — about 15 percent of the local population — with moderate to severe asbestos-related pulmonary diseases who could be particularly at risk for COVID-19 complications. Lincoln County health officials are especially worried that local medical facilities in Libby, Troy and Eureka could be easily overwhelmed by a spike in cases.
Black said so far local medical personnel are taking every precaution possible.
“At this time, all indications are that our EMS and hospital personnel were well-prepared for this event,” Black said. “We feel confident that our medical personnel used appropriate personal protective equipment and were able to minimize potential exposure.”
The Lincoln County Health Department is currently conducting an investigation to see if anyone else in the community was exposed to the virus by the initial patient.
The Lincoln County Health Department has set up a COVID-19 information line at (406) 293-6294. The line is staffed seven days a week from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.