Cascade County COVID-19 updates

Information is changing rapidly now so we’re making a list of COVID-19 related information that will be updated as it comes available.

This post is being continuously updated as information becomes available from credible sources with official information.

On March 14, representatives from local health agencies, government, Great Falls Public Schools and Malmstrom Air Force Base gathered to discuss their response procedures and the current situation in an effort to share facts about the COVID-19 outbreak and reduce panic.

Trisha Gardner, health officer at the Cascade City-County Health Department, said local event organizers had reached out to CCHD in consideration of canceling events and large community gatherings in efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“These are not easy decisions,” Gardner said.

Gardner said the public can take control of their own health by practicing good hygiene, particularly hand washing and covering coughs and sneezes, and staying home when sick and avoiding others who are sick.

For older adults and those in the high risk populations should take extra precautions such as stocking up on over the counter medications and talking to providers to ensure they have enough of any prescription medications, and have necessary supplies in case they need to stay home for an extended period of time.

“Most people will be able to recover from COVID-19 at home,” Gardner said.

Those with questions can call CCHD for additional information about symptoms or other concerns, Gardner said. The number is 406-454-6950.

Testing remains an area of concern, she said, since at this time there aren’t enough tests so it’s being done at the discretion of health care providers with a focus on patients that meet criteria from the Centers for Disease Control and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. That criteria is listed below in the CCHD section.

“We can’t test everybody who just wants a test,” Garnder said.

As of 7 p.m. March 14, there were no confirmed cases in Cascade County.

CCHD sent four tests to the state lab on Thursday, all of which came back negative, Gardner said Saturday. CCHD sent five tests on Friday and those tests were also negative.

Gardner said Great Falls Fire Rescue and Great Falls Emergency Services are working with the city-county dispatch center to provide aggressive pre-hospital responses and dispatchers are asking detailed questions so crews can best respond and also protect themselves.

Dr. Ray Geyer, an infectious disease physician at Great Falls Clinic and Board of Health member, said coronaviruses are common, but this particular strain is highly transmissible, which is causing the pandemic.

He said many people who have COVID-19 won’t exhibit any symptoms or will have mild symptoms similar to the common cold.

Most people who contract COVID-19 won’t require a doctor visit but health professionals can speak to them by phone to determine their best course of action.

Geyer said it’s immeasurable how many of those cases exist globally and that the numbers being counted by health agencies are only those who have been tested.

Geyer said the tests include a nasal swab, which is used for other viral infections like flu strains, and that the current panel tests for coronaviruses, but not the newer COVID-19 strain.

He said that healthcare professionals aren’t necessarily thinking of COVID-19 for every patient that comes in with cold or flu-like symptoms.

Geyer said that this strain started at a wet market in China, where the virus jumped from infected animals to humans and has since spread rapidly.

Geyer said that humans cannot contract COVID-19 from their pet dogs.

Dr. Bridget Brennan MD, emergency physician and chief medical officer for Benefis Medical Group, said officials started meeting weeks ago to prepare response plans for the potential COVID-19 outbreak.

“There’s a lot of panic and a lot of fear and a lot of rumor,” Brennan said.

For most people, she said COVID-19 will present with cold like symptoms and they don’t necessarily need to see a doctor.

Brennan and the other health professionals said that a rush on emergency rooms won’t be helpful so are asking people to call ahead so providers can help determine the best course of action.

Milder cases can stay home, Brennan said, but for those who’s symptoms worsen they may need a hospital visit.

Brennan said that some people who are tested for COVID-19 may be isolated at the hospital, depending on their condition, but she said there are not large numbers of people being quarantined at the hospital. In most cases, if the person is well enough, patients are being sent home to recover there. Again, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Cascade County at this time.

Brennan and Geyer said that in the case of anyone isolated, if the test comes back negative, the isolation stops.

Geyer said that Great Falls Clinic is using the northwest clinic building for sick visits to leave the main building and hospitals open for other operations and to segregate sick and healthy people.

Benefis is restricting visitation to the senior services facility and working to separate healthy patients from those coming in with cold or flu-like symptoms, according to Kevin Langkiet, the director for emergency and critical care services at Benefis.

Tom Moore, superintendent of Great Falls Public Schools, said the district is preparing staff to provide distance learning in case of prolonged school closures.

The district is also working on plans to deliver food to students on meal programs and providing childcare in the event of prolonged school closures, Moore said.

Col. Jennifer Reeves, 341st Missile Wing commander, said for now, base operations are normal.

City Manager Greg Doyon said the city has plans to for continuity of services such as snowplowing, sanitation, utilities and other essential services.

The city has adjusted the commission agenda for the March 17 meeting to postpone the items that would have drawn a large crowd but don’t require immediate attention, Doyon said.

Cascade County Commissioner Jane Weber said the county’s aging services division provides meals and transportation and those services will be continuing, though they are taking precautions to prevent staff’s exposure and the spread of any contagions.

The division also provides some in-home cleaning services and Weber said the county is debating curbing some of those services in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, but hasn’t make any decisions yet.

Cascade County Aging Services: http://www.cascadecountymt.gov/departments/aging-services

Cascade County Health Department

Update 7:55 p.m. March 13: County City-County Health Department officials said Friday night that on Thursday, CCHD sent four test samples to the state lab and five more tests on Friday to the lab for testing for COVID-19.

According to CCHD officials, there are four presumptive positive cases in Montana, but none are in Cascade County. The state is awaiting testing from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control for confirmation of any COVID-19 cases.

The tests were conducted by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services Public Health Laboratory, were confirmed Friday evening. As is current standard, test results are considered presumptively positive and will be confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control.

On the evening of March 14, Gov. Steve Bullock’s office confirmed two presumptively positive cases of COVID-19, in Missoula County.

  • The Missoula County patient is a female in their 30s
  • The Missoula County patient is a male in their 50s

As of 2:45 p.m. March 13, there was no confirmed case in Cascade County, but some residents had been tested, according to Cascade County City-County Health Department officials.

Testing in Montana is still limited and, currently, people cannot be tested at will for COVID-19.

Cascade County City-County Health Department officials told the school board earlier this week that there were 200 test kits in the state. On Friday, CCHD said more kits have been made available and commercial labs are now able to conduct testing, speeding the process.

According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, the four presumptive positive cases are in the counties of Gallatin, Yellowstone, Silver Bow, and Lewis and Clark.

  • The Gallatin patient is a male in their 40s.
  • The Yellowstone patient is a female in their 50s.
  • The Silver Bow patient is a male in their 50s.
  • The Lewis and Clark patient is a male in their 50s.

There is guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services that healthcare providers are required to follow. The CDC has laid out clear criteria for those who should be tested, which are regularly updated as we learn more about COVID-19:

  • A person has a high fever (over 100 degrees Fahrenheit) and/or symptoms of acute respiratory illness (coughing, difficulty breathing)
  • That person, within 14 days of starting to feel ill, has had close contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19, or has recently traveled from an area with ongoing spread of the disease
  • That person is 65 years of age or older, or has underlying conditions that put them at risk for severe disease

CCHD for help in handling the potential outbreak and asks that if you are experiencing influenza- or COVID-19-like symptoms, to call your health care provider before going to seek care so they can determine whether you need to be tested and help you find the right place to go. Healthcare providers generally must rule out other causes of illness, such as the flu, before testing for COVID-19, and not every facility can perform the necessary tests.

Business owners who want to determine whether their employees are eligible to work should call the CCHD at 406-454-6950. CCHD asks that employers not send employees to be tested before returning to work, as testing may not be appropriate for that individual.

Trisha Gardner, Health Officer at the Cascade City-County Health Department, said in a release that outbreaks like the current COVID-19 situation are ultimately stopped at the local level.

“Each person should feel empowered to protect themselves,” Gardner said. “If you protect yourself against the flu, and teach your kids how to do the same, then you’re also protecting your family against the coronavirus in case it shows up in Cascade County.”

CCHD is working closely with our community partners—including Benefis Health System, Great Falls Clinic, Great Falls Fire Rescue, EMS, Alluvion Health, the City of Great Falls, and multiple Cascade County agencies—to prepare in the event that COVID-19 comes to our community.

“We have been developing, sharing, and practicing plans for a variety of emergency scenarios for years, and they will be the foundation of our response to COVID-19,” according to the CCHD release.

Great Falls Public Schools

Around 4:30 p.m. March 12, GFPS Superintendent Tom Moore got a call from CCHD Director Trisha Garnder about a family connected to Meadowlark Elementary that had been tested for COVID-19.

That test came back negative, according to CCHD, but as a precautionary measure, the district conducted a deep clean of the school on Friday since students were out for the day.

Moore and Gardner said that as tests come back, if there are any positive cases tied to schools, for now, they’ll make closure decisions on a school by school basis.

“As we get information, that dictates our behavior,” Moore said in a Friday night press conference.

Benefis Health System

Benefis Health System does not offer immediate COVID-19 testing.

If a patient exhibits certain signs and symptoms and it is determined they need to be tested, Benefis contacts the City-County Health Department, followed by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, in order to obtain a test kit, according to a post from Benefis.

After a patient is tested, he or she will be placed in isolation until Benefis receives the test result, which can take several days.

Benefis has established a helpline for questions and concerns related to COVID-19. The helpline can be reached at 406-455-2500 from 7 a.m.-5 p.m. seven days a week. Residents who are concerned they have COVID-19 should call this number – please do not show up to a facility before calling.

Great Falls Clinic

If you are concerned you have COVID-19, please contact our 24/7 helpline at (406) 454-7275. The number will be staffed full-time until further notice. Do not come into a healthcare facility without calling first if you are showing signs of COVID-19 which includes symptoms of fever, cough, or shortness of breath.

Malmstrom Air Force Base

Based on the recommendation of the Malmstrom Public Health Emergency Officer, the base commander has declared a public health emergency and has raised the Health Protection Condition from zero to ALPHA.

According a release from Malmstrom, Col. Jennifer K. Reeves said, “I have been notified by my Public Health Emergency Officer of a public health situation on our installation involving COVID-19 that requires immediate action. Based on the PHEO’s recommendation and the results of a preliminary investigation, I am declaring a public health emergency.”

The declaration will provide Malmstrom officials the tools necessary to protect airmen and their families and limit the spread of this virus.

“The risk to the base population remains low, but it still exists and that’s why preventive measures such as washing hands frequently and practicing good hygiene are critical to the success of our efforts at protection,” Reeves said in a release.

Declaring a public health emergency enables base leaders to take actions that promote force protection, such as closing base facilities, limiting non-mission essential activities, restricting movement, or implementing quarantine or isolation for select individuals. The declaration is in effect for 30 days unless otherwise terminated or extended.

“Force health protection is our top priority, and we will continue to ensure that Air Force personnel have the most up-to-date information on appropriate measures to prevent potential spread of the virus. We are doing everything we can to help minimize the spread of COVID-19. Our airmen and their families, live, work and attend school in this community and we are committed to doing our part to limit the spread of this virus,” Reeves said in the release.

Raising the HPCON level to ALPHA aligns with existing precautionary measures. HPCON A measures are designed to mitigate a limited health threat posed by COVID-19 to base personnel that has the potential to rapidly move into an area. The measures include educating personnel on the threats and precautionary measures, and reviewing plans to limit communication of the disease.

“Our command staff and the PHEO will coordinate activities and share information with state, local, tribal and territorial officials responsible for public health and public safety to ensure our response is appropriate for the public health emergency,” Reeves said in the release.
GFPS cancels, postpones all after school activities through March 27 due to COVID-19

Great Falls St. Patrick’s Day Parade

The Ancient Order of the Hibernians have cancelled the St. Patrick’s Day that was scheduled for March 17 in downtown Great Falls.

The group is still planning their Raise a Pint night at the Mighty Mo on March 16.

Western Art Week

After discussions with the City-County Health department the Out West Art Show Board of Directors has decided to postpone their show scheduled for March 18-21 at the Heritage Inn.

“The health and safety of all of our artists, patrons and volunteers take precedent over the challenges faced by postponing,” according to a release. “To all of our partners that have worked hand in hand with us to put the show together, know that we will get the show done and it will be even bigger and better. We will be meeting with the other show directors in the coming weeks to map out a plan to preserve the synergy that has turned Great Falls into the Western Art capital of the world, at least for one week each year.”

Other shows have also postponed, as listed below:

Jay Contway and Friends Art Show

Missouri Falls Fine Arts Show and Sale

Montana Watercolor Society at Out West Art Show

Great Western Living & Design Show

Western Heritage Artists Footprints on the Trail Art Show

Wild Bunch Art Show

The History Museum

Programming at The History Museum is being postponed and the museum will close to the public temporarily beginning at 8 a.m. March 14 due to COVID-19.

“These decisions are in response to direction from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and our City County Health Department’s recommendations to cancel all large gatherings. We are deeply concerned about the health of all of our visitors, participants, volunteers, and employees, but particularly our elders who are among the most vulnerable. Cancelling programming, including Western Art Week programming, is the most prudent action at this time,” according to a release from the museum. “We apologize for the last minute cancellation and hope to have another opportunity to offer this programming in the not so distant future. ”

Great Falls Public Library

In an effort to prevent the transmission of COVID-19 the Great Falls Public Library is taking precautionary safety measures.

Effective immediately the following measures are being instituted:

  • Patrons are asked to scan their own library cards at check-out. Staff will avoid handling library cards and ID’s as much as possible.
  • All of the online public access catalog computers (the computers patrons use to look up library items) have been shut down. Patrons are requested to ask staff for assistance or to use their own smart device to search the catalog.
  • Staff are assigned to disinfect all public surfaces multiple times per day.
  • Interlibrary loan service is suspended.
  • Common use items such as LEGOs, blocks, and toys have been removed from usage.

Effective Monday March 14, 2020 the following measures will be instituted:

  • Public access computers (computers patrons use to access the Internet and other software) will be limited to a smaller number of computers and each computer will be disinfected after each use.
  • Bookmobile service will be suspended.
  • Public events/programing will be suspended, including Storytime, Toddler Time, Friends of the Library Book Donation Days, and all other programming.*
  • Use of the public meeting rooms will be suspended.*
  • All volunteer service will be suspended.
  • The Montana Room and Genealogy Society will be closed.

These suspensions will be in effect until further notice to ensure the safety and well-being of all patrons, volunteers, and library staff.

“Please note that the library is unable to comprehensively sanitize every single item in the collection, and, as such, patrons are advised to wash their hands after handling materials and avoid touching their faces,” according to an email from the library. “We would like to remind visitors that libraries are shared public spaces. Please do your part to stop the spread of germs and disease. For the health and safety of others, please be thoughtful about coming to the library if you are exhibiting any COVID-19 symptoms. If you are experiencing any COVID-19 symptoms and have items checked out, please call the library before returning them. We will make arrangements to extend your checkout and/or ensure that the items are disinfected before being returned to the collection.

*Tax Help Montana will continue to provide service on Tuesdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a drop-off basis only.

  1. Taxpayers will still need to fill out the required intake sheet.
  2. While taxpayers fill out intake, Tax Help Montana will copy all relevant and needed identification and tax papers such as ID, SS card, W2s, etc.
  3. Taxpayers will leave items with Tax Help Montana.
  4. Tax Help Montana will prepare returns while taxpayers are away.
  5. Taxpayers will pick up their taxes at a later date/time.
  6. Tax Help Montana will follow the CDC social distancing guidelines to minimize exposure risks.

Cascade County Sheriff’s Office

As of March 13: In an effort to ensure the health and safety of all our staff, the individuals under our care and the general public, we have decided it is necessary to suspend ONLY inmate visitation protocols at the Cascade County Detention Center until further notice. This decision is not only based on the health concern, but the strain the new health protocols is putting on our detention staff. We understand the importance of interaction for our inmates, their family and friends, but staff and inmate health and safety are our top priorities. We appreciate the public’s understanding and patience. Other than visitation the Detention Center is still open for business as usual.”

Great Falls Fire Rescue

“With the goal of reducing the risk of exposure and spread of COVID-19 in mind, GFFR is cancelling any and all public education and training to the public. This includes our CPR classes and car seat installation checks. We are not sure when this closure will be lifted, but we will be certain to keep you informed as we learn more.”

Great Falls Development Authority

GFDA and Embark Credit Union host the annual awards at The Fire Within, but have decided to postpone the event that was scheduled for March 26.
Spring Lifelong Learning classes canceled or rescheduled due to COVID-19

“This was a tough call to make — The Fire Within is an incredibly important event for both our organizations, and it’s one of our favorite ways to celebrate the Golden Triangle’s incredible community of female entrepreneurs — but we need to prioritize the health and safety of our community, partners, employees and everyone else who helps to put this event on,” according to a post from GFDA.

Commissioner of Higher Education

The Commissioner of Higher Education, Clayton Christian, tested presumptive positive for COVID-19. Christian was tested in Missoula County and received test results Saturday evening from the state lab, according to a release issued at 8:30 p.m. March 14.

“As a public official who interacts with many people on a day-to-day basis, it’s absolutely critical that I share these results and notify those I have come in contact with,” Christian in a release. “I’m thankful to local public health as they work diligently to notify the people I came into contact with and make sure they have accurate information to prevent further spread.”

Christian is in isolation recovering at home, according to the release.

It is suspected at this time that Christian’s exposure occurred at the Board of Regents meeting in Dillon on March 5, according to the release.

According to release from Gov. Steve Bullock’s office at 8:45 p.m. March 14, an individual from Silver Bow County at that March 5 Board of Regents meeting tested presumptive positive for COVID-19 on March 13.

Lt. Governor Mike Cooney attended the same meeting, but has tested negative for COVID-19 and has been asymptomatic, according to the release. Cooney is in self-quarantine until March 20, which is 14 days after his point of exposure, according to the release.

The Lt. Governor and the other individual have consented to providing this information in the interest of keeping the public informed.

Special Olympics Montana

Due to recent developments tied to the global spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19), exasperated by heighten risks for people with intellectual disabilities and the elderly, Special Olympics Montana is following the advisement of Special Olympics International by suspending all sport training and competition activities and other programs involving our athletes through March 31, 2020, at which time the situation will be reevaluated.
Letter from CEO, Mary Davis-Special Olympics International

State Basketball Tournament

Updated March 14: The MHSA has received word from the Montana Department of Health and Human Services that there are now four confirmed cases of COVID-19.
As such, the Montana High School Association has no choice but to suspend the remainder of our state basketball tournaments.
Though this is not the result that the MHSA wants, the Association will designate the winners of tonight’s semi-final as co-state champions.
The MHSA and each host facility will address the refund of all session adult and student tickets for those individuals able to produce a ticket. This information will be posted on the MHSA website – www.mhsa.org.

As of Friday morning, Great Falls Public Schools teams are still participating in the state basketball tournament.
University of Providence moving classes online for remainder of semester due to COVID-19

According to an email from GFPS, the Lady Rustlers won in loser out action this morning and plays again Saturday morning. Bison boys play tonight at 6:30 p.m. in the semifinals.

The Montana High School Association is responsible for making decisions on whether the tournament continues or not, according to GFPS, but as of now it’s moving forward.

State and district courts

The Montana Supreme Court issued a memo March 13 regarding operations and COVID-19.
Air Force secretary visit off; Malmstrom implementing changes at gates related to COVID-19

Beginning March 16, jurors who are defined by the CDC as at-risk if they contract COVID-19 must be released from jury duty, if requested, and requests may be made over the phone.
GFC MSU extending spring break by a week to prepare for remote instruction due to COVID-19

Jurors who are considered high to medium risk should be directed not to report.

Attorneys or self-represented litigants scheduled for jury trials through April 30 must be given the option and encouraged to request a continuance or a bench trial.
NA3HL hockey playoffs paused due to COVID-19, including Great Falls Americans games

A homicide trial with a jury was scheduled to start next week in Cascade County district court but is being pushed back.

NA3HL playoffs

The North American 3 Hockey League announced March 13 that the remainder of the 2019-20 season, including the remainder of the 2020 NA3HL Fraser Cup Playoffs and Championship, have been canceled due to COVID-19.

The NA3HL was entering the Divisional Semi-Final round of the 2020 Fraser Cup Playoffs when the cancellation of the season occurred.

“Today is truly a sad day for all of us, and we share the disappointment that all of our players, teams, parents, and fans are experiencing at the moment. We have some incredible players and teams in the NA3HL that are doing some great things on and off the ice. However, the safety of our hockey community is our top priority and the decision to cancel the remainder of the season was necessary and in the best interest of everyone involved,” NAHL Commissioner and President Mark Frankenfeld said in a release.

In the coming weeks, the NA3HL will announce its 2019-20 season awards. The 2020 NA3HL Draft will take place online at na3hl.com on April 23rd at 3 p.m. central and can also be seen live on HockeyTV.

“In light of the announcement, it is important to know that the NA3HL remains committed to providing opportunities to its players. Plans are already in place in the event that conditions have improved to present new and additional exposure and development events for players in the NA3H,” according to the release.