BILLINGS — Yellowstone County has finally received all the results from the sentinel COVID-19 test event held in early July, weeks after the tests were administered, Yellowstone County Health Officer John Felton told the Billings City Council Monday night.
“Earlier, we had received the symptomatic tests. There were some of those that were positive. We also have just received this big block of asymptomatic tests and a few of those were positive as well. We have sort of an up and down course," Felton said.
Those tests administered in July were prepared by Quest Diagnostics, which operates medical labs in many states across the country. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said the state will no longer be using Quest to prepare its tests in a news conference last week.
Instead, the state will take its business to Mako Medical, a lab based in North Carolina.
“For the most part, the backlog has been taken care of. The state has been very happy with the performance of Mako, which is the lab that’s being used in North Carolina, in terms of turnaround time. Mako did agree to run about 1,000 tests a day for Montana," Felton said.
According to Felton, officials are "gun shy" about holding more large-scale sentinel COVID-19 testing events. If the results take weeks to come in, they are of no use to those tested or county health officials. The excessive amount of calls to the health department of people checking up on results is also a drain of time.
“They do tend to call us every day, sometimes multiple times a day. Where’s my result? And we keep promising that we’ll tell you as soon as we have it. It’s really outside of our control once we send the test out. So we’re a little gun shy and we’re going to wait and see," Felton said.
The state will get some additional help from a testing facility that will soon be operational at Montana State University in Bozeman. Felton said the college lab will run 500 tests per day.
The Bozeman Health hospital and Kalispell Regional Healthcare have contracts with the state to run tests, increasing the state's capacity, Felton said.
Felton gave an update on the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations in Yellowstone County. He said there were 45 people in Yellowstone County hospitals sick with COVID-19 as of Monday. About seven of them are in intensive care and about four people are on ventilators.
“The number of hospitalizations has crept up. It’s actually moved up pretty significantly over the past six weeks," Felton said.
About two thirds of those hospitalized in Yellowstone County are from the county. The other third is made up of residents from outside the county, the largest portion coming from Big Horn County, Felton said.
Felton described how Big Horn County seems to have been hit harder by COVID-19. Officials compare case counts by figuring how many new cases there are per day per 100,000 residents, or figuring the "normalized rate." This allows for easier comparison when putting the large population of Yellowstone County up against a smaller one like Treasure County.
In Yellowstone County, "that number has gradually crept up. It hasn’t crept up really dramatically, but it has been creeping up. It was 12, then 15. Now it’s 18. We do watch that really carefully," Felton said.
In Big Horn County, officials regularly record as many as 100 new cases per day per 100,000 people, Felton said.
“We are very concerned about that. We’ve done a lot of work as the unified health command in terms of working with Big Horn County and particularly the Crow Nation and looking at how we can do our best to understand what’s going on," Felton said.
Health officials across the state are working with their local school districts to adopt a policy dealing with outside attendance to school events like sports games. Bullock left a lot up to local control when it comes to opening schools.
Felton said he met with other county health officials, AA superintendents and AA activities directors across the state to get some uniform policy on Sunday. It makes for a difficult schedule if a Billings AA team has to travel to Missoula County and finds that the rules for attendance are different.
“I can’t say that we came to a definitive conclusion, but there were some important questions that we need to figure out what the answers are," Felton said.
Felton is also trying to work with all schools in Yellowstone County to come up with a uniform attendance policy that could work for schools big and small. Felton said he's meeting on Tuesday with school officials to work towards a plan.
Felton still had a lot of questions about what exactly constitutes a group of 50 people inside a sporting event like football.
“The Governor’s directive says that whenever physical distancing can not be reliably maintained throughout the course of the event, then the group size is limited to 50. So, what’s the group size on the football field? Is it two groups because they are on opposite sides of the field? Is it one group because they are on the same field? How many athletes and coaches and referees and trainers and chain gang people can be on the field at one time? It’s even things that seem simple are not quite as simple as we’d hoped," Felton said.