BILLINGS — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock visited a free, drive-up COVID-19 testing site in Crow Agency in Big Horn County Wednesday as local, state and tribal officials urge all county residents to be tested for the virus.
The sentinel surveillance test site was manned by the Montana National Guard, Indian Health Service staff, Bureau of Indian Affairs officers and other local health and law enforcement agencies.
The site was located at the old Apsaalooke Nights Casino, where staff performed tests from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. On Thursday, the group will set up shop at the Hardin High School to continue testing during the same time frame to anyone who drives or walks there.
“This is open to anyone and everyone. We would really like to have as many people come out and get tested over the next two days as are willing," said Rhonda Johnson, Big Horn County public information officer.
On Wednesday, Big Horn County identified three new cases of COVID-19, a woman in her twenties, a male in his twenties and a male under the age of 10. All three were tested at similar events on the Crow reservation last week.
Between the two sites, Johnson estimated 1,000 tests may be administered.
To get tested, people will need a valid ID, working phone number and physical address, not a P.O. Box. Johnson said the personal information is gathered to contact people with the results of their test.
The sentinel surveillance test site is working with a goal to be proactive and see how far the virus has spread in the local community. This is a different strategy than seen earlier in the pandemic, when testing resources were more scarce.
The sentinel surveillance tests will provide a baseline reading of community spread which can be compared with future results to better identify possible cases. It also helps to identify people who may have the virus but are asymptomatic, or don't have prevalent symptoms. The more tests ran, the better the data becomes.
“It’s really a mass testing, where we try to test as many people in a community as we can," Johnson said.
The sentinel surveillance testing is something relatively new for Montana. Bullock announced in April expanded testing efforts would happen as the state reopened. A similar site was implemented on the Fort Belknap Reservation about two weeks ago.
"We hope that we do hundreds, even thousands of tests and there isn’t one positive. But we also know that if there is one positive, asymptomatic or symptomatic, we all collectively can go a lot quicker to make sure that we can continue to contain this virus, not necessarily just respond afterwards,” Bullock said.
Bullock said discussions are being had about expanding the sentinel testing to other Montana locations, namely "gateway communities," or border cities that are often the first stop for out-of-state tourists.
He said the state is currently working on testing all the residents and staff of long-term care facilities across the state.
Crow Tribe Chairman A.J. Not Afraid said conversations with Bullock last week led up the resources being brought to Crow Agency. Both leaders said the facility is an example of federal, tribal, state and county governments working toward a common goal.
“For all of them to collaborate together, it’s just perfect, because that’s unity at its best. Despite whichever party you’re with, it doesn’t matter right now. It’s for the people," Not Afraid said.
State Rep. Sharon Peregoy, D-Crow Agency and a member of the Montana American Indian Caucus, urged community strength as it works through a trying time.
“I would like to say to my Crow people, stay diligent. Take care of each other, love each other and help each other because that’s how we’re going to be able to flatten the curve not only on the Crow Reservation but across Montana," Peregoy said.