With Labor Day Weekend on the Horizon, Health Officials Urge Vigilance

Flathead County continues to add positive cases of COVID-19 as schools resume and outbreaks grow

By Tristan Scott
Shoppers wearing face masks stroll around downtown Whitefish on July 13, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Local health officials joined Montana Gov. Steve Bullock in urging residents to exercise caution over the Labor Day weekend in an effort to lessen the severity of surges in COVID-19 cases that have coincided with past holiday breaks, like the Fourth of July and Memorial Day.

“No barbecue or party is more important than protecting your health and the health of your family,” Bullock said on Sept. 3. “Enjoy all that Montana has to offer, but please exercise caution this weekend.”

As cases continue to climb in Flathead County, where recent outbreaks have been tied to two long-term care facilities for seniors as well as to a youth group home, officials reported they’re busy monitoring active cases and conducting contact tracing.

In addition to hiring more contact tracers, who are working seven days a week to keep up with the workload, the Flathead City-County Health Department recently started using new technology to help expedite the process of case monitoring, according to Interim Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson. The Sara Alert system automates the process by following up with individuals who test positive for COVID-19 or have had an exposure to a confirmed case, allowing epidemiologists and public health nurses to maintain contact with the patients.

Once the department confirms someone has COVID-19 through testing, or identifies them as having come into contact with someone who tests positive, individuals are asked enrolled in the Sara Alert system. Their personal health information resides in a secure database, which sends out daily automated-symptom check-in alerts. That way, public health personnel don’t have to call the individuals to follow up every day.

The tool allows individuals to report daily symptoms via text message or email, providing public health departments, like Flathead County’s, real-time insights. It also allows people who have come into contact with COVID-19 positive cases to report their symptoms.

If someone develops symptoms or needs to provide other updates, a prompt tells health officials to follow up with a real-time phone call.

“That is helping us out tremendously,” St. James Robinson said. “We are very happy to have that in place. Our monitoring team has had between 500 and 600 people they were monitoring every day, which was a lot of calls. We just started using the Sara Alert system and it has already made our lives a lot easier.”

Flathead County reported 14 new cases on Sept. 3, adding to a total of 93 active cases and 11 hospitalizations. The total number of non-resident cases was 57, while the number of individuals being monitored by the agency was 437. The county has logged 651 cumulative confirmed cases since the coronavirus outbreak began, the fourth-highest number of cumulative cases confirmed in a Montana county, behind Big Horn, Gallatin and Yellowstone.

In what has become Flathead County’s largest outbreak to date, a long-term care facility in Whitefish had confirmed 51 positive cases of COVID-19 as of Sept. 3, resulting in the deaths of five residents.

“We have continued to see more cases out of that one outbreak,” St. James Robinson said.

The Northwest Montana Fair and Rodeo wrapped up on Aug. 23, and while St. James Robinson said there hasn’t been any correlation between this year’s downsized event and a rise in new cases, she said four individuals who contracted COVID-19 reported attending the fair.

“We have had four individuals test positive who attended fair, but the exposures weren’t necessarily linked to the fair,” she said. “Those four people had all engaged in other activities as well, and since the incubation period for COVID-19 is 14 days it’s hard to pinpoint them to a single factor.”

Given the proclivities of residents to gather in groups during summer holidays, St. James Robinson urged individuals to practice the same health and safety precautions that are now commonplace in the age of coronavirus.

“Wear your mask, social distance, wash your hands and be mindful,” St. James Robinson said. “The usual stuff.”

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