There have been 60 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus among Flathead County residents in just the last two days, a drastic spike in the virus’ spread that tells a vastly different story than the numbers officially reported by the state’s COVID-19 task force.
Publicly available numbers compiled by the Montana Disaster Emergency Services’ Governor’s Coronavirus Task Force showed just five new cases in Flathead County on Monday, Sept. 14 and none the following day. Those numbers are announced via email each morning and publicly available on a website monitoring the state’s response to COVID-19.
Flathead County’s numbers, however, tell a much different story. Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson said the county received 37 positive test results on Monday and 23 on Tuesday. Those numbers are available on a reporting dashboard managed by the county health department but not regularly distributed.
St. James Robinson said the discrepancy could have been the result of “data glitches” within the statewide reporting system but said her office, especially as case numbers rise, is most focused on contacting those who have tested positive, isolating them, and informing their close contacts to enter a 14-day quarantine.
“(The numbers don’t) come out on a regular basis because we’re so buried in data right now,” she said.
This week’s 60 cases, St. James Robinson believes, are tied to activities over Labor Day weekend, based on the virus’ 14-day incubation period. St. James Robinson worried the community may be starting to feel “COVID fatigue” after spending the last six months living with the coronavirus, and the safety measures public health and other government officials have attempted to enact and enforce.
“We’re not out of this yet,” St. James Robinson said. “We need to be very vigilant about washing our hands, social distancing and wearing masks in order to protect the people in our community who are vulnerable, our seniors, and so we can keep schools open and businesses open.”
The recent surge in cases, accompanied by the more complex contact tracing related to the discovery of COVID-19 in schools, has also led to an influx in calls to the health department. St. James Robinson said her office received 150 calls on Monday, about 50 more than an average day, an additional time commitment required of an already overworked department staff.
“When we bumped up to 150 (calls) it was ‘holy cow,’” St. James Robinson said. “We are hiring people and we are pulling other staff members in to help us but it’s a lot … We’re working nights, we’re working weekends. It’s a lot on our staff.”
Another county report, called the Community Indicator Dashboard, shows troubling trends in the county’s ability to investigate new cases, conduct adequate monitoring and keep up with the community’s level of concern, even before the most recent spike. For the week of Aug. 24-30, the county reported each of its investigators received more than six new cases each day and that the office was receiving more than 75 calls from the community daily. It also shows case monitoring was being minimally done, with contacts monitored only when released from isolation or quarantine. All three of those indicators fall within the highest level of the county’s green-yellow-red chart.
Eight people in Flathead County are currently hospitalized due to COVID-19 and the health department is reporting 13 deaths related to the illness.