Several important stakeholders in the Missoula community met with reporters on Friday in the City Council chambers to provide updates on the unfolding coronavirus pandemic.

Governor Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency this week, and the heads of these agencies provided individual responses.

Director of the Missoula City County Health Department Ellen Leahy said at the base of all the uproar over dealing with COVID-19 was the disruption it is causing in everyday life.

“There’s one thing about pandemics that will affect and is affecting all of us, and that is the daily disruption of their lives,” said Leahy. “That is a huge disruption and no one will escape that disruption. What we’re all trying to do, and you’ve seen it voluntarily being done all over the country and right here in our community is to talk about that disruption and how we can manage it.”

One very large disruption, if it does occur, would be the closing of Missoula public schools. MCPS Superintendent Rob Watson spoke on that subject to the press.

“I want to talk briefly about school closures,” said Watson. “Please understand that student safety and the safety of our staff are the top priority for us in the school system. We recognize that we play an important part in the community and any actions that we take will affect the community. We have not received any orders or guidance or instruction to close schools after spring break. What we received this morning from the Centers for Disease Control was guidance on ways to consider district-wide school closures. We’re not at that stage yet, however we know we could be very quickly as this is evolving. We will take direction from the local county health department as well as the governor’s office should we move to district-wide closures.”

Watson then addressed the possibility of a short-term, school-specific closure.

“Should there be a case of student or staff that is confirmed then we will move to a short-term closure at that school for two reasons,” he said. “The first reason is for the cleaning of surfaces, but more importantly that short-term closure of from two to five days would allow for the local health department to identify close contacts in order to stop the spread as those students come back to school.”

Watson said as of the end of spring break that the district would suspend all out-of-state school sponsored travel for both staff and students for March and April, with the policy to be revisited in May and June. In addition, the district will suspend all events that allow community member attendance, along with suspending activities where large groups of students come together, such as large lunchrooms and school assemblies.

One of the stakeholders was Cindy Farr the coronavirus incident team manager with the Missoula City County Health Department. She was asked about the availability of coronavirus test kits throughout the state.

“Last week the State Health Department let us know there were only 200 test kits in the entire state,” said Farr. “As of this week they said that they have over 600 tests and they have no doubt they could get more of the tests. In addition to the State of Montana labs there are also two private testing labs, however there is one caveat. With the private labs the test results take from five to seven days, while with the state test labs the results are available by the end of the next business day. That affects families because we have to have those people in isolation until the tests come back, so if kids are in school or they are missing work, then it’s a lot easier for them to get back to their lives after the next business day rather than waiting for a week.”

Others in the press conference included Mayor John Engen, City Council President Bryan von Lossberg and University of Montana President Seth Bodnar.


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