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Montana able to expand surveillance testing for COVID

by Amy Beth Hanson
| July 22, 2020 2:30 PM

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana has agreements to expand surveillance testing for COVID-19 a week after Gov. Steve Bullock said such testing would have to be put on hold because of a backlog at an out-of-state lab the state was using.

“Surveillance testing of asymptomatic individuals is a powerful tool in helping slow the spread of the virus in our Montana communities,” Bullock said in a statement Wednesday, hours after the state announced two more deaths and 104 new cases of COVID-19.

A lab at Montana State University will be able to process 500 tests per day, starting as early as next week, he said.

“Montana State University has been an enthusiastic partner in helping find a Montana solution to our testing capacity and I am incredibly grateful for their partnership as we work together to protect the health of Montanans," Bullock said in a statement.

The Department of Public Health and Human Services will determine what Montana populations need to be tested and will ship the samples to the lab at MSU for processing, the governor's office said.

Health officials have said nationwide delays in processing tests over the past several weeks have hurt their ability to trace the contacts of those who have tested positive for the respiratory virus, risking further spread.

In northwestern Montana, where there is a recent cluster of cases, Lincoln County Public Health Manager Jennifer McCully said she has waited for up to two weeks for test results, making it impossible to conduct effective contact tracing or to learn how the virus is being spread in the community.

“The goal of contact tracing is to wrap your arms around individuals and contain them so the disease doesn’t go any further. And we just can’t do that without getting a clearer picture," McCully told the Flathead Beacon.

Montana also reached an agreement with a lab in North Carolina to process up to 1,000 tests per day, at a cost of $100 per test, said Maj. Gen. Matthew Quinn, the adjutant general of the Montana National Guard who is overseeing the governor's coronavirus task force.

Jim Murphy, head of the state health department’s communicable disease bureau, has said the state lab can still process all the tests it receives for people with symptoms of the respiratory virus.

The state will work to match its surveillance testing to the capacity of the labs to ensure a reasonable turnaround time for test results, the governor's office said.

Montana has had more than 2,800 people test positive for COVID-19, and just over 1,200 are currently known to be infected. The number of infections is thought to be much higher because many people have not been tested.

A Yellowstone County man in his 60s died at his home on Tuesday, the county health department said. A Sweet Grass County man in his 80s also died, the county health department said Tuesday. He had been hospitalized.

Montana has confirmed 1,797 cases of COVID-19 in the first three weeks of July, compared with 1,016 from mid-March through the end of June. The governor instituted a mask mandate on July 15 for counties where more than three people are known to be currently infected with the coronavirus. It applied to 36 of Montana's 56 counties on Wednesday.

Some of the most recent cases of COVID-19 have involved large gatherings, such as weddings, where proper precautions weren't taken, while a cluster that started with a college sports team led to 20 cases among team members and their friends, Bullock said. Other cases have spread when people have gone to work while sick or didn't follow quarantine or isolation directions from county health officials, he said.

“These decisions can have long-reaching impacts and effects,” Bullock said, urging people to wear masks, stay home when you're sick and practice social distancing and good hygiene.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death. The vast majority of people recover.