Donna Hosmer of the DPHHS State Public Health Laboratory labels tubes to be used in the COVID-19 testing process before the information is entered into a computer system for tracking purposes. Credit: Photo courtesy of Jon Ebelt/DPHHS

HELENA — Gov. Steve Bullock said Wednesday he plans to scale up Montana’s COVID-19 testing program to administer 60,000 tests a month as the state begins to scale back social distancing directives implemented in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

That expansion, Bullock said, will help ensure every Montanan with COVID-19 symptoms can receive a test for the disease, and will enable the state to conduct additional testing in nursing homes and tribal communities where people are at particular risk from the disease.

“This is a long-term goal that we’ll be ramping up to get to,” Bullock said, acknowledging that testing efforts are still subject to supply constraints on nasal swabs and other necessary materials. His office said the state hopes to meet the goal “over the next several months.”

As of April 29, the state had conducted 13,528 COVID-19 tests through the state laboratory in Helena. The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services said April 21 it was aware of another 2,500 tests that had been conducted by other labs.

A joint reporting project published last week by Montana Free Press, the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Lee Newspapers, Montana Public Radio and Yellowstone Public Radio found that state and local health authorities don’t have reliable information on how many COVID-19 tests have been conducted in many Montana counties. Without that information, national health experts said, it’s difficult to assess whether testing efforts have neglected particular locations.

Bullock didn’t commit Wednesday to compiling better information on where the state’s additional testing will be done.

“We’ll certainly look at what we can do and provide,” he said.

In recent weeks Bullock has encouraged any Montanan with COVID-19 symptoms — fever, cough and shortness of breath — to seek a test for the illness. He has said that the state lab has been able to keep up with testing demand throughout the pandemic, though state health officials have asked health care providers to be “judicious” in ordering tests as recently as April 15.

Wednesday, the governor said providers should approve tests for anyone with a single COVID-19 symptom, including additional symptoms — chills, repeated shaking, muscle pain, headache, sore throat, and loss of taste or smell — newly identified by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control this month.

“If any Montanan has one or more of these symptoms, I’m asking you to get tested. And I’m asking providers to do that test,” Bullock said.

The governor also said that nursing homes and tribal communities will be an immediate focus of expanded testing to assess whether the virus is spreading unnoticed in vulnerable populations. In a release, he said the state will test residents and employees in nursing homes and assisted living facilities and will partner with tribal communities to perform more testing there.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been the source of COVID-19 outbreaks in Montana and nationally. Health officials also describe tribal communities as high-risk areas because they tend to have multi-generational families in crowded housing and residents with high rates of existing health conditions that can increase their risk of infection and illness, the governor said.

“With enhanced surveillance, our goal is to take a sample of the representative population in certain communities to get an estimate of what could be happening with the virus,” Bullock said.

“There are a lot of questions about what could be happening with asymptomatic spread, not just in Montana but all across the country.”

Eventually, Bullock said, the state plans to conduct surveillance testing in the broader population. He also said he hopes to eventually conduct more testing in “areas of confinement” such as state prisons and the state hospital in Warm Springs.

The governor began to roll back emergency public health directives including a stay-at-home order over the weekend as part of the state’s phased reopening plan, with some churches resuming services with social distancing measures in place on Sunday. As of Wednesday, Montana had a total of 53 active coronavirus cases, including five hospitalized patients. 

Bullock also fielded questions Wednesday about whether Montana has enough health workers to conduct time-intensive contact tracing efforts in the event of an uptick in COVID-19 cases.

A National Public Radio project published cited the National Association of County & City Health Officials as suggesting public health agencies should have 30 health workers available for contact tracing for each 100,000 residents. NPR reported that most states, including Montana, don’t meet that threshold.

DPHHS spokesman Jon Ebelt said this week that the state health department has 10 staff who help with contact tracing, on top of 100 to 120 people available to do contact tracing at local health departments across Montana’s 56 counties. That total of 130 health staffers equates to about 12 per 100,000 Montanans.

Bullock said Wednesday that $5 million in federal coronavirus aid money will be used in part to help local health departments with contact tracing through a state-administered grants program. Citing Montana’s comparatively low rate of new infections, he also said the state is in a different position than many of its peers.

“I do think that we have the capacity there,” he said.


Eric Dietrich

Eric Dietrich a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. He has worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org and follow him on Twitter.