Flathead Health Department Can’t Keep Up with Wave of New COVID-19 Cases

Public health officer asks for ‘patience,’ says department is unable to complete case investigations within 24 hours

By Andy Viano
The Flathead City-County Health Department building as pictured on Sept. 23, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The Flathead City-County Health Department is unable to conduct timely case investigations because of an “alarming” rise in the prevalence of COVID-19 and an overworked staff that remains underwater despite long hours and seven-day workweeks.

In a press release distributed on Tuesday, the FCCHD warned that residents who test positive for COVID-19 might not receive a follow-up call from the health department within 24 hours, as had been the goal. Patients who test positive for the virus are first notified by whoever conducted the test, typically a healthcare provider or private company.

“Our staff is working hard to investigate cases as quickly and efficiently as we can, but our caseload is increasing by the day,” Interim Public Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson wrote. “If you receive a positive test result, please stay home for 10 days, you will receive a call from an FCCHD staff member as soon as we can. We appreciate your patience during this time.”

The department also urged those who are exposed to a positive case to self-quarantine at home for 14 days. Close contacts are typically identified through case investigations and are contacted by the department. The FCCHD release did not address how quickly they are able to identify and communicate with close contacts, and the department did not immediately respond to a request for clarification. The FCCHD release did note that media requests “cannot be accommodated” at this time.

Additional resources for patients who have tested positive and close contacts are available at flatheadhealth.org/close-contact-information/.

Members of the health department staff have been ringing alarm bells for weeks regarding insufficient staffing levels and a steep rise in cases, hospitalizations and deaths from the virus. The county reported 551 new cases of COVID-19 for the week of Oct. 6-12, and the latest numbers show 24 people are hospitalized in Flathead County and 23 others have died. More than 600 cases are currently active.

Anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, chills, cough, shortness of breath, muscle or body aches, or loss of taste or smell should contact their healthcare provider for information on testing.

In response to the surging case numbers, the department will propose a series of restrictive measures at the Oct. 15 Flathead City-County Board of Health meeting. Those measures, including capping social gatherings at 25 people and limiting bars, restaurants and churches to 25% capacity, could go into effect as early as next month if the county does not see a significant slowdown in new cases.

More information on Flathead County’s current COVID-19 situation is available at flatheadbeacon.com/covid-19-tracker/.

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