The Missoula City Council gathered on Wednesday morning to provide updates about the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19. Representatives from the Missoula Health Department were in attendance, including Health Promotion Director Cindy Farr. Although there are no known cases of the virus in Montana as of March 4, Farr spoke about the Health Department’s current precautions against the spread of COVID-19 in Missoula.

Farr says that planning is necessary so that the county is prepared in the case of a COVID-19 outbreak.

“It’s probably not a matter of if it comes here, but when,” Farr stated in the City Council meeting. “We have seen a large spike in Washington State; once they started testing, they started finding more cases.”

According to Farr, the Missoula Health Department activated many of their planning measures after the dramatic spread of the virus on the West Coast during the last week.

“Our state health department now has the ability to test for COVID-19, but on a limited capacity. Nationwide, there’s just not a lot of testing reagent available.”

Farr says that anyone exhibiting respiratory symptoms will first go through evaluation to rule out any other illnesses. A health care provider must administer testing, which will then be sent to the state lab.

Other city and county precautions that have been initiated by the Health Department include mobilizing the Office of Emergency Management as well as Incident Command Systems.

The Health Department is focused on delivering targeted information to the various stakeholders in the community. For example, the Health Department spoke at the University on March 3 to attendees who included UM President Seth Bodnar, Mayor Engen, members from Mountain Line transit, and representatives from assisted living centers and hospitals in Missoula.

The Health Department has also hosted meetings and teleconferences with schools, hospitals, and nursing homes to facilitate the spread of relevant information.

Along with the measures undertaken by the Health Department, Farr says that preventing an outbreak of COVID-19 is “a community response.” The Health Department offers precautions in order to protect yourself, and the advice is similar to general knowledge about avoiding the flu: wash your hands frequently, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, do not touch your face, and cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough.

More specifically to COVID-19, Farr advises anyone who has recently traveled abroad to the five most at-risk countries—China, Japan, South Korea, Iran, and Italy—to contact the Missoula Health Department. She recommends against non-essential travel abroad, reminding the public that many airlines are relaxing their cancellation policies due to concerns about the virus’ spread.

Although protective masks have been flying off of supermarket shelves in the last few weeks, Farr emphasizes that the masks cannot protect wearers from contracting COVID-19.

“Those surgical masks and N-95 masks are not going to protect you from this virus,” Farr stated. “Those should only be used if you are sick yourself and you are going into see your health care provider, [because] they will protect you from spreading the disease to someone else. As far as the public wearing the masks, that is not going to protect you.”

In fact, wearing masks could even increase your chances of contracting the virus, as most people frequently touch their face to adjust a mask while wearing one.

Finally, Farr reminded the public during the City Council meeting that the symptoms of COVID-19 tend to be mild for most people. Initial symptoms include shortness of breath, lower respiratory problems, or a fever over 100.4 degrees. The virus can have an incubation period of two to 14 days, and can affect people over 60 years old and those with underlying respiratory conditions with more severe symptoms.

To learn more about the virus, the Missoula Health Department has set up a call center to answer question and concerns. The call center is open Monday through Friday from 8 AM to 5 PM. The center can be contacted at 258-INFO (406-258-4636).

The Health Department website also includes updates about COVID-19. For accurate and local information, the call center and the Health Department website are the best places to start. A televised recording of the March 4th Missoula City Council meeting can be accessed here.