Acting Health Officer Bowen Trystianson said he had more “hopeful information” regarding COVID-19 in the community, with the Health Department expecting to see a drop in cases in the next week, during the Board of Health’s meeting Wednesday.
Trystianson said there was an increase in COVID-19 cases this week; however, this was due in part to staff closing out pending COVID-19 cases.
“We're caught up, and to tell you what a miracle and an effort that is, it's hard to quantify, to be honest, given the volume of which things were pouring in and the staffing that we have,” he said. “Starting next week, we should hopefully see this trend going down, and if we're very fortunate, we won't see it go back up for the rest of my life.”
City-County Health Officer Ben Spencer explained the increase in cases to be from a backlog of positive tests from January and early February, when the county “experienced 600+ positives some days and lacked the manpower to keep up with the surging numbers.”
“We are now all caught up, but that has inflated the number of new cases opened this week. We should start seeing a dramatic drop next week,” Spencer said in an email to the Tribune.
Trystianson cited how hospitals are seeing less COVID-19 patients and less employees are getting sick with the virus. He said the City-County Health Department continues to give out COVID-19 rapid tests and said that the department still has a good supply to hand out to the public and interested businesses.
“It's starting to become a little more of a more comfortable environment, which is a pretty good report to give,” he said.
Great Falls Public Schools Superintendent Tom Moore thanked Trystianson for taking on the “daunting task” of leading the health department through the omicron variant surge. Moore said the school district has seen a significant decrease in cases, last reporting six total cases, and said masks are now highly recommended on school property and not required. He said the federal regulation surrounding mask wearing on buses has been lifted.
Board Chair Dr. Matt Martin said there are currently five candidates to fill the Health Officer position. Martin said County Human Resources developed a screening system where the board of health can score candidates. Cascade County Chairman and board member Joe Briggs said that HR would be sending the screening tool to the board members and that the board can provide feedback on the screening criteria. Martin said he would like to have all feedback on the criteria by next week in order to keep the process moving.
The board will also be privy to the questions county commissioners will be asking the candidates during the interview process and will be welcome to sit in on interviews via Zoom.
Briggs said he had an informal meeting with City Commissioner Joe McKenney last week regarding the Board of Health governing body, which is required to oversee the board of health under HB 121. Briggs said he and McKenney would be briefing their respective commissions to then begin discussions toward navigating a path forward about the governing body and the long term Memorandum of Understanding between the city and county surrounding the health department.
The state posted 969 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing Montana’s total active confirmed reports to 1,707.
Montana reported 3,191 total deaths to date and 101 active hospitalizations from the virus, according to the state website covid19.mt.gov.
Cascade County reported 184 new cases and now has 148 active cases. This discrepancy is likely because of the backlog of cases that are being closed by the CCHD.
There were two additional COVID-19 deaths in the county confirmed on Monday, according to CCHD spokesperson Ben Spencer:
• Male, 60s, vaccinated and boosted, with underlying conditions• Male, 80s, unvaccinated, with underlying conditions
He said these deaths happened in late January and would not be added to the new death numbers for the week, but would be included in the total lost from the virus, now at 314 in the county.
To order at-home COVID-19 tests through the federal government, go to covidtests.gov.
CCHD requests test results be reported at DPHHS' reporting site at montanagovernment-aijle.formstack.com/forms/montana_covid_home_test_reporting. If you do not have internet access, CCHD asks you call the department to report a positive result. The number is (406) 454-6950. It is recommended that positive results be confirmed through a PCR test.
CCHD hands out rapid home tests, with each box containing two tests, every weekday from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. at 115 4th St S, Great Falls, MT 59401.
Of the state’s eligible population, 54% are fully vaccinated. Of the county’s eligible population, 50% are fully immunized against the virus.
The first case of COVID-19 in Montana was reported on March 11, 2020.
Yellowstone County added 343 cases for a total of 561 cases. Flathead County added 190 new cases for a total of 102 cases. Hill County added 68 cases for a total of 48 cases. Gallatin County added 27 new cases for a total of 132 cases. Missoula County added 23 cases for a total of 202 cases.
This article originally appeared on Great Falls Tribune: Montana health department expects to see drop in COVID-19 cases