Coronavirus testing in Montana

90 confirmed cases statewide as of Thurs. afternoon
Thursday, March 26, 2020
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The true number of coronavirus cases is unknown. Treatable respiratory illnesses are first often ruled out. Shown here, Jessica Kostoff, R.N., Dr. Hannah Dupea, M.D., and Ash Eddy, M.A., conduct testing in the “Rapid” clinic in the Livingston HealthCare Hospital ambulance bay. The Central Montana Medical Center also has an ambulance bay where patients can stay in their car while a nurse does an initial respiratory symptom screening. Yellowstone Newspapers photo by Nate Howard

The exact number of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases is currently unknown, and the number confirmed cases rises daily in the State of Montana, as well as across the world.

Your healthcare provider is the first step for being tested for COVID-19, according to the Montana Department of Health and Human Service. Individuals are generally screened for other illnesses prior to being tested for the coronavirus, but testing also utilizes the experience and judgement of the healthcare provider.

“There is no-cost for the COVID-19 test,” said Central Montana Health District Public Health Nurse Julie Rooney, adding that associated cost would likely be the pre-screening tests. Judith Basin County falls under the Central Montana Health District.

Providers will likely start by looking for the three hallmark symptoms of COVID-19, which are fever, shortness of breath and a dry cough, according to Rooney. However, symptoms of influenza are quite similar - temperature over 100.4, shortness of breath and coughing. However, influenza strongly appears to be much less contagious and less severe than COVID-19. In turn, medical providers are tasked to rule out illnesses that are treatable first. Influenza, for example, can be tested for and treated by antivirals. COVID-19, on the other hand has no treatment.

High-risk factors

Fergus County is focusing on high-risk people for coronavirus testing, according to Rooney. Initial screening questions for coronavirus include determining if the individual has, first and foremost, its hallmark symptoms, and then the next screening questions are if the individual has been exposed to a known COVID-19 carrier and/or travelled to an area that has known community spread of coronavirus.

Providers also take into account other illnesses common to a community.

“When a provider screens an individual, the provider also looks for symptoms consistent with other illnesses currently spreading in the community,” said Rooney.

Examples of such community illnesses are strep throat, non-COVID pneumonia and influenza, Rooney said.

“If doctors are not sure, they’re testing for common community diseases, as well as using their professional experience, and then testing for COVID-19,” said Rooney.

By treating and or stopping other respiratory illnesses, COVID-19 can be better managed as a whole by our communities.

Whether testing should be limited or expansive is an item of debate in the healthcare field, said Paula Coleman, a nurse practitioner at with Livingston HealthCare.

“We here at Livingston HealthCare are leaning toward broader testing and not basing testing solely on the screening criteria,” said Coleman.

While results become available, the number of cases has been rapidly changing, icreasing by over seven times in just a week’s time. At the time of this article, there were no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Fergus County, Judith Basin or Park. Keep in mind, COVID-19 may be present in these locations, but there are not cases of individuals yet testing positive for the relatively small number of persons tested.

While the number of cases has been increasing daily in the state, as of 4:30 Thursday, March 26 (the most-recent data available at the time of this article), the Montana Dept. of Health and Human Services reported a total of 90 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Montana out of 2,680 persons tested. These are in Gallatin County (38 confirmed cases with evidence of community spread), Yellowstone County (14 confirmed cases), Missoula County (7 confirmed cases), Flathead (5 confirmed cases), Cascade (5 confirmed cases), Butte-Silver Bow (5 confirmed cases), Lewis and Clark (5 confirmed cases), Madison (2 confirmed cases), Broadwater (2 confirmed case), Jefferson (2 confirmed case), Ravalli (1 confirmed case), Meagher (1 confirmed case), Roosevelt (1 confirmed cases), HIll (1 confirmed case), Toole (1confirmed case), Gacier (1 confirmed case) and Lincoln (1 confirmed case). The DPPHS has provided a map of confirmed cases across Montana, which is updated twice daily at 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. It can be found at

A healthy population

In addition to concerns for the COVID-19, there are many respiratory diseases floating around this winter, as well as many more tests taking place.

“We have at least 10 common respiratory viruses going around,” said Coleman in Livingston.

Ideally, this time of isolation will help shut down these other virus and we will have many healthy people moving forward, Coleman said.

Still, individuals who do not exhibit symptoms can spread illnesses, noted Rooney in a separate conversation. While much is unknown for the COVID-19, based on other diseases, it is safe to guess that certain individuals will shed/spread the virus without having symptoms, she added.

This is why staying in and self-isolating is so important. Hopefully a broad population base will adhere to this advice. A healthy population is needed to fight this deadly virus.

With many bars, restaurant and entertainment venues closed, many are forced to stay in and abide by this practice in order to prevent spreading the virus to others.

While self-isolating, it’s ok to go for walks and get fresh air, away from others.

“Being outside is good, and fresh air and sunshine can keep us healthy and help ward off many known viruses,” said Rooney.

Rooney hopes a lesson we may learn from this global health pandemic is to develop better practices overall when it comes to preventing the spread of viruses.

“Wouldn’t that be a great lesson?” Rooney asked emphatically. “If we were to learn that the best way to stop communicable disease is to self-isolate and not spread it to others? Communicable diseases are not going away, so we need to develop in how we progress as a world once this passes.”

Broader testing expected

Additional, broader testing options are expected in the near-future, said Coleman, noting that improved and increased testing options are being rapidly produced and will be available for same day results and in-house testing through private labs.

“Our goal is to get through this season, which is the most contagious and really flatten the curve as vaccines can be developed,” said Coleman.

Basically, because this virus is new, at some point everyone will either get it or be vaccinated for it, so flattening the spread until a vaccine can be created is critical, she added.


Editor's Note: The following link will take you to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services' map of known cases in Montana. It is updated at 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m daily. It is important to consider that there is evidence that the virus can be spread by individuals not exhibiting syptoms, and a relatively small number of the overall population has been tested, which is why social distancing remains so important in curbing this spread and protecting the health of one another.