Less than a week after the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 appeared in Montana, the Children, Families, Health, and Human Services received an update on state activities related to the disease caused by a new form of the coronavirus.

Members met by conference call on March 19 after canceling their previously planned two-day meeting due to the national response to COVID-19.

Three Department of Public Health and Human Services officials discussed work being done to curb the spread of the disease in Montana and honed in on their key message – preventing the spread of the disease is the best treatment for it at this point.

DPHHS Director Sheila Hogan discussed the Montana Coronavirus Executive Taskforce created by Gov. Steve Bullock to coordinate the state’s response, create public awareness and preparedness, and assist local public health departments, health care providers, and other entities across the state. 

Todd Harwell, administrator of the DPHHS Public Health and Safety Division, told committee members that his division has been working with local and tribal public health agencies since early January. The division is sharing the latest guidance on the coronavirus and helping the agencies with the local and statewide responses, including public education and outreach.

The division also receives funding for emergency preparedness from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said, and will be dispersing an additional $4.5 million that Congress recently allocated to the state. The money is earmarked for aiding local public health efforts, buying protective gear for health care providers, and increasing laboratory testing capacity.

Harwell said the DPHHS public health laboratory has increased its laboratory hours and the number of communities at which it can pick up and transport samples for testing.

However, he and Dr. Greg Holzman, the state medical officer, both noted that the state has a limited amount of testing supplies and protective equipment for health care workers. Holzman discussed the priorities being used to determine when a person will be tested and the need for people to isolate themselves at home if they have symptoms.

Holzman also emphasized the need for people without symptoms to follow “social distancing” guidelines. He said that will help slow the spread of the disease and may prevent a spike in cases that could overwhelm the health care system.

The audio recording of the meeting is available online.

Future Meeting Dates

The Children and Families Committee was originally scheduled to continue work on its two major studies of the interim – child protective services and senior and long-term care services – when it met in March.

Those activities did not occur and will be rescheduled when more is known about how long current restrictions on public gatherings will continue.

Notice of future committee meetings will be posted on the committee’s website and distributed through the committee’s interested parties list.

The Legislative News.