Missoula health officials clarify COVID-19 testing procedures

Reduce coronavirus WHO

Missoula City-County Health Department and local hospitals have received several calls regarding testing for COVID-19.

“There is a lot of confusion among the public about testing for COVID-19, mostly around the expectation that anyone can get a test,” says Cindy Farr, incident commander for the county’s response team. “It’s not as simple as testing everyone in the community.”

One of the most significant points of confusion is how the test works. The current test is not designed to screen people for their risk of exposure to the virus. It can only diagnose someone with COVID-19 who is showing symptoms.

Another challenge with testing is the number of test kits available. While the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services received approval to start testing for COVID-19 early last week, they had access to only 200 tests for the whole state, meaning resources need to be used judiciously. For a test to be completed at the state, local health care providers work with DPHHS and take into account a person’s likelihood of exposure, their symptoms, the severity of those symptoms, and the exclusion of other respiratory illnesses. These criteria were set to use resources effectively and ensure that those with a higher likelihood of having COVID-19 are diagnosed quickly.

Soon, a private lab will be able to process diagnostic tests for Missoula. While this is welcome news, that doesn’t change the nature of the test, as it is still a diagnostic test and not used for screening. It also does not increase the supply of tests, and health care providers will still need to assess the likelihood of COVID-19 before testing. While more testing is a good thing, Montana does not want labs overwhelmed with tests from unlikely candidates, resulting in delays diagnosing those who may have the disease.

“Hopefully, more resources will become available, but we need to work effectively with the resources we currently have,” Farr says. “Right now, the best tool we have in our community is prevention.”

The health department recommends the following precautions:

  • Wash your hands
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick
  • Disinfect surfaces frequently
  • If you do exhibit symptoms of fever, coughing or shortness of breath, call your medical provider first and stay home except when seeking medical treatment

The public can call 406-258-INFO with questions or concerns about COVID-19. Local information also is online at http://missoula.co/cvirus.

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