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COVID-19 numbers surge in Lake County

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Lake County has posted its highest number of COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began last spring. As of Sunday, the county posted 179 active cases, up 25 from Friday, with two deaths since the pandemic began. 

The uptick mirrors an increase in coronavirus infections across the state that has many healthcare professionals warning of a strained healthcare system.  

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, Lake County’s two hospitals – 

St. Luke in Ronan and Providence St. Joseph in Polson – have a combined capacity of 47 beds. St. Joseph is also equipped with a small Intensive Care Unit (two beds) and four ventilators. 

As of Oct. 14, DPHHS reported that one COVID patient was hospitalized in the ICU at St. Joseph, which had six other patients and 15 beds available. St. Luke had 12 beds occupied with regular patients and 13 available. 

Over recent weeks, there has also been a growth in numbers of COVID-infected people over 70. 

Lake County Health Department Director Emily Colomeda took some time out of a very busy week to answer a few questions about the local uptick in COVID-19 cases. 

VJ: As of Sunday, Lake County is showing 179 active cases – is that the highest number so far?

EC: Yes … keep in mind, though, that the number of active cases fluctuates daily as people recover and are released from isolation. Our daily Facebook posts have the most accurate data.

VJ: The latest DPHHS report shows that five schools in Lake County have reported COVID cases. Are kids returning to schools contributing to the increase? 

EC: We have had some isolated cases in the schools, but they do not contribute to the surge in cases. There is no evidence so far that there is transmission within the schools. 

VJ: How is the staffing level at the county health department? Do you have a sufficient number of tracers and healthcare workers? 

EC: The health department is being stretched right now. We have brought in extra staff to do case investigation and contact tracing, and we plan to bring in additional help. There are only three of us that are full-time, and most of us are working around the clock to get everyone contacted and interviewed. 

 VJ: How about testing availability? What’s the best route for someone who thinks they might be positive to safely and quickly access a test?

EC: Both Providence St. Joseph Medical Center and St. Luke Healthcare Network are doing the most testing. They, too, are seeing an increase in the demand for testing. So far, I believe that they are holding steady with testing supplies. 

The best way for someone to get tested is to call ahead to either of those facilities, and they will give further instructions. Tribal Health is also providing testing. Again, call ahead for more details. 

VJ: Over the past week, there has been an average of 578 cases per day statewide – an increase of 99 percent from the average two weeks earlier. What do you attribute that surge to? 

EC: I wish I knew for sure. Many of the cases we talk to do not know where the exposure occurred. People are spending more time inside as the warm weather turns colder, and there is a better chance of transmission indoors. I do think that there are some people that are not as vigilant as they were when the public health mitigation measures were put in place. 

VJ: What are your biggest concerns right now? 

EC: We are a couple of weeks into flu season, although we are not seeing flu cases in Lake County just yet. With the rise in COVID cases, we are concerned about what might happen once we do start seeing influenza circulating. I urge everyone who can get a flu shot to do so. 

VJ: What’s most frustrating about the public response to the pandemic? 

EC: The public health community has been pretty clear about what works to reduce transmission of COVID-19 – consistent and correct use of masks, social distancing to the largest extent possible, hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, and cleaning and disinfection. We must all work together to practice all of these things in order to protect one another. 

We know there are people who refuse to wear masks or who have gotten tired of staying home. We know there are businesses that refuse to comply with the governor’s directives in terms of capacity or requiring staff and patrons to wear masks. All of these factors are contributing to the rise in cases.

VJ: Where do you find glimmers of hope? 

For the most part, the community has been pretty supportive. I do see a lot of people wearing masks and avoiding crowds. We have strengthened our relationships with our local hospitals, clinics, tribal health, emergency medical services and schools. Our communication with them has helped us improve our processes and identify areas of improvement in terms of consistent messaging and public information. 

VJ: As cold weather approaches, what advice do you have for the public on how to stay healthy, avoid COVID and slow the spread? 

EC: In general, some healthy behaviors people can practice are eat well, take your vitamins, get enough sleep, stay active and take care of your emotional health. 

We cannot stress enough how important it is to keep wearing masks, avoid social gatherings; if you don’t have to go out, then don’t. We are still in phase two of the pandemic. Gatherings of 50 or more are still prohibited. There are still limitations on restaurant capacity. We still have a responsibility to protect ourselves and others in the community by making an effort to follow the guidelines. Lastly, I’ll say it again; please get a flu shot.  

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