Credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS / CDC

Gov. Steve Bullock spoke with members of the press by phone this afternoon to offer updates on the four presumptive positive cases of coronavirus reported Friday night, as well as the state’s continued response to the threat of COVID-19. Given Bullock’s signing of a state of emergency declaration on Thursday afternoon, he characterized the arrival of presumptive positives as “in some respects unsurprising.”

“Please report that all four patients are at home in isolation and recovering,” Bullock told the press.

Bullock was joined on the call by State Medical Officer Greg Holzman, who offered additional details on the four cases. Two of the four — a Gallatin County male in his 40s and a Yellowstone County female in her 50s — had recently traveled internationally, Holzman said. The other two — a Butte-Silver Bow County male in his 50s and a Broadwater County male in his 50s — had recently traveled to Washington state. 

Holzman clarified that the state’s Friday announcement had misidentified the Broadwater case as being in Lewis and Clark County. None of the four have been hospitalized, he said.

“All four counties are working on contact investigation with assistance from the state health department,” Holzman said. “Fortunately, information collected so far indicates that most of the patients had self-isolated, as had their household members. In addition, early indications are that health care providers and patients made every effort to minimize risk in a health care setting.” 

Ongoing investigation of the four cases by local health officials will include what Holzman referred to as “trace-back,” an effort to identify anyone who came into close contact with the patients prior to their self-isolation. Any individuals identified as close contacts of those patients will be counseled about their risk and will be asked to comply with quarantine and monitoring procedures. Those who have or develop symptoms will be monitored and tested for coronavirus.

Holzman said the decision to test an individual for coronavirus generally falls to that individual’s health care provider. Providers are required to immediately notify local health departments of suspected cases, and those departments will provide the materials required for testing. Bullock said the state has approximately 850 test kits available, with a request for additional kits from the Centers for Disease Control expected to be filled soon. Montana has had no issues getting kits from the CDC, Bullock added. He said rumors of tests being refused due to shortage are false.

According to Bullock, the state lab has so far conducted 107 coronavirus tests, including the four presumptive positives, which are being sent to the CDC for secondary testing. Until the CDC results are returned, presumptive positives are being treated as positive cases. An additional 51 tests are being conducted March 14. Holzman said samples are typically tested at the state lab the day they arrive, and presumptive results returned within six to eight hours, though samples that arrive later in the day may take slightly longer. Samples collected from individuals are transported to the state lab via an existing courier network, which will begin operating seven days a week in response to the coronavirus concern.

Bullock’s state of emergency declaration accesses $16 million in emergency funding to address public health. The CDC has made an additional $4.5 million available to Montana. A multi-departmental coronavirus task force was established by the state a week and a half ago to work with county health departments, which Adjutant General Matthew Quinn said are on the front lines of the response to COVID-19. More information on the task force is available at

The state is also working to communicate with the public through a hotline at 1-888-333-0461, and an email at Bullock said he is receiving regular briefings on new developments. He also confirmed that there has been no discussion of a blanket statewide closure of schools, that there are no plans to restrict interstate travel, and that there has been no assessment of the economic impacts of the coronavirus outbreak at the state or national levels. In response to a question about members of the public hoarding supplies, Bullock’s message was “to plan and prepare but not to panic.”

Bullock stressed that the coronavirus situation is dynamic and rapidly evolving, and that public sacrifices like cancelling events and avoiding large crowds will ultimately mean keeping more people healthy in the long run. Bullock also said the public should do everything it can to ensure the safety of “legacy Montanans,” those over 70 who are most susceptible to the disease.

Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...