For the first time in “I don’t know when,” outgoing Flathead City-County Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson says her team at the health department is confident in its ability to track and manage the COVID-19 outbreak as the rate of new cases reported in the county has declined for the first time in months.
St. James Robinson presented the encouraging information at the Flathead City-County Board of Health’s monthly meeting on Dec. 17, the first meeting since Joe Russell was installed as her replacement. St. James Robinson’s last day will be Dec. 31. Both she and Russell participated in Thursday’s virtual meeting, in which hundreds of public comments on the coronavirus were submitted despite no COVID-related items on the agenda.
When the coronavirus was discussed, the news was overwhelmingly positive for the first time since at least October, when the board’s once little-noticed meetings turned into contentious battles marred by disagreements over how to manage the pandemic, unanswered cries for help from public health officials and rampant misinformation shared by public commenters and at least one board member.
As of Dec. 17, Flathead County had confirmed 1,502 new COVID-19 cases in December, an average of 88.4 per day. That’s a far cry from November, when the county averaged 119 cases per day, but still well ahead of the pace in October (71.5) or any month prior. However, month-over-month case totals had been on the rise every month since the summer, a trend that seems likely to end in December.
“It appears we’ve hit the top of our epi(demic) curve,” St. James Robinson said. “I’m hoping that we don’t have another spike.”
The graph of daily COVID-19 cases, commonly called an epi curve, shows the numbers of new cases identified by day and can be a useful tool in analyzing how an outbreak develops, although analyzing epi curves in real time can be misleading. Because of the delays between exposure and when people get sick — for COVID-19 that so-called incubation period can be as long as 14 days — and receive positive test results, epi curves can show a downtick in cases even in the midst of a growing outbreak, or the opposite. What it does show, however, is that for several weeks prior to Dec. 17, transmission of the virus was likely less widespread in Flathead County than it had been, including over the Thanksgiving holiday.
“We did not experience a Thanksgiving bump like we thought we would,” St. James Robinson said. “Hopefully it’s because people took our recommendations.”
Despite the decreasing case numbers and the arrival of a COVID-19 vaccine in Flathead County on Thursday, several board members, notably Dr. Pete Heyboer, urged continued adherence to safety protocols like wearing a mask, social distancing and washing your hands.
“We still have a lot of disease prevalence in the community,” Heyboer, who chairs the board’s COVID-19 committee, said. “This is not a time where we need to back off … it’s a time to maintain diligence and have some confidence in the measures we’re taking.”
One definite benefit of the downtick in cases is that it has allowed the long-floundering health department to catch up on case reporting, monitoring and contact tracing. An exodus of frustrated staff, particularly public health nurses, along with an explosion in cases caused St. James Robinson to report the department had mostly abandoned any attempt to conduct contract tracing in November, except in high-risk situations, as it attempted to onboard a number of new and/or temporary staff. That is no longer the case.
“This has been the first time in I don’t know when that I actually feel like our COVID team, we’re actually on top of things,” St. James Robinson said. “We’ve gone back to doing full case investigations on every case … We have enough contact tracers to handle the caseload. I feel like we’re in a really good place to hand off to (Russell).”
Fifty-one Flathead County residents have died due to COVID-19, and despite the slowing rate of new cases December has been the county’s deadliest month since the pandemic began with 12 fatalities reported, the same number as in all of November.
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