Health Department Says Flathead County at ‘Critical Point in Fight Against COVID-19’

Month-long surge in confirmed cases has health officer threatening ‘additional control measures’ if flow of positive tests does not recede

By Andy Viano
A sign at Kalispell Middle School urges visitors to wear masks and keep their distance on Aug. 21, 2020. Beacon File Photo

Rising numbers of confirmed cases, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 have put Flathead County at a “critical point” in its efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the county’s health officer said, while stopping short of implementing any new countermeasures to reverse that trend.

Since Sept. 12, more than 1,000 new cases of COVID-19 have been discovered in Flathead County at a rate of nearly 44 per day, an alarming acceleration from the first six months of the outbreak. The county’s death toll has also climbed steadily in recent weeks, with two more deaths reported Monday to bring the county’s total to 21. Thirteen of those deaths have come since the start of September. And the number of people hospitalized has been on the rise, too, with as many as 19 people reportedly under hospital care at times in the last week, the highest levels seen so far. The county’s own Community Indicators show Flathead is at a critical level in four of seven monitored areas, including case investigations, contact monitoring, community concern and hospitalizations.

All of those numbers prompted Tamalee St. James Robinson, the county’s interim health officer, to issue a strongly worded statement Monday, pleading with residents to heed the safety measures widely recommended by health experts, including wearing masks, maintaining social distance, and avoiding any large gatherings, and warning that ignoring those recommendations could lead her to take action.

“Flathead County has reached a critical point in the fight against COVID-19,” St. James Robison wrote. “We are seeing a surge of new cases and these are putting a strain on our healthcare system as well as our public investigation team. If we as a community do not step up to take action to prevent the spread of COVID-19 additional control measures will need to be implemented.”

The health officer has broad authority to protect the community during times of crisis and on Sept. 30, Gov. Steve Bullock urged local authorities in hot spot areas to consider decisive action like closing bars and restaurants. Flathead County was one of six counties identified by Bullock as a hot spot. In response to that suggestion, Flathead County commissioner Pam Holmquist, who also sits on the county board of health, wondered why the governor did not implement new restrictions himself, and St. James Robinson said she would make no decision on new measures without the support of the county commissioners and the board of health.

In Monday’s statement, the health department did recommend several precautions, asking community members to: social distance, wear a mask, stay home if you are ill, wash your hands, avoid interaction with those outside your immediate family and social circle, stay away from large gatherings, use drive-thru or takeout services where available, work remotely when possible, and avoid interaction with those under isolation or quarantine.

One additional area the department highlighted was how school-age children interact outside of the classroom. Cases continue to be identified in local schools — 77 had found in Flathead County schools as of Sept. 25, the most recent numbers available — but thus far none of those cases have been traced to in-school spread. Instead, the health department wrote that school-related cases have come from “cast parties, slumber parties and birthday parties.”

“Parents, please be mindful of how you are allowing your children to spend their downtime,” St. James Robinson wrote. “Everyone needs to take small mitigation steps to help keep our schools open.”

Administrators have long worried that cases among staff members, combined with a smaller pool of available substitute teachers, would be the most likely cause if schools were to close their doors. Evidence of in-school spread would be the other trigger that could lead schools to shut down temporarily.

The most up-to-date information on case totals, hospitalizations and deaths in Flathead County can be found using the Beacon’s COVID-19 tracker.

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