HELENA — Governor Steve Bullock on Thursday gave an update on COVID-19 cases within his office and introduced a couple from Butte who shared their experiences after contracting COVID.
Bullock confirmed a second staff member in the governor’s office has tested positive, a day after the first positive case was announced. “As we’ve seen time and time again throughout these past eight months, this virus can impact anyone,” he said. Four other staffers were determined to be “close contacts” with one or both of the employees who tested positive. They are being quarantined for 14 days. Bullock said neither he nor Lt. Gov. Mike Cooney were a close contact with the employees. He said they both tested negative on Wednesday and Thursday.
Bullock said he believes the precautions his office has taken, like checking employees’ temperatures and limiting large group interactions, have limited the spread among staff members. “With masking up and following other precautions, like sanitation and disinfection in the governor’s office, it’s our hope that this virus will be contained,” he said.
Bullock also brought in Gilbert Herrera and Gina Sandon, a married couple who were both infected with COVID-19. Last month, they said they began experiencing severe symptoms.
“I couldn’t breathe, felt like my chest was constricted, my breaths were shallow, and things were starting to go black,” said Herrera.
“I was dizzy, delirious, I couldn’t stand without getting nauseous,” Sandon said.
Both said they spent multiple days in the hospital, receiving treatments like the antiviral drug remdesivir. Sandon said she was hospitalized for 11 days and remained in isolation for a total of 45 days. While both have recovered, they say they are concerned about long-term effects. Herrera said he continues taking blood thinners because doctors are concerned he may have a blood clot. Sandon said she had suffered from sepsis while in the hospital.
Herrera said he was initially a skeptic about wearing masks, and that he had once called COVID a “sham-demic” that would end once the election was over. Now, he says his perspective has changed. “This virus does not care who you are, doesn’t care what color you are, doesn’t care if you’re clean, dirty, whatever,” he said. “If you’re going to get sick, it’s going to get you. Now, I’m a firm believer in wearing the masks, because I don’t want to see anyone else go through what we had to deal with.”
Bullock also provided an update on the announcement that nursing teams from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will come to Montana to assist rural hospitals that are facing staff shortages. He said it has not been determined exactly where those teams will work, but that one will go to the Hi-Line and two will go to Eastern Montana. Each team will include five nurses and will spend 30 days in the state. The first three will arrive next week, and two more will come after the response to Hurricane Zeta in the Southeast.
Bullock said critical access hospitals in Montana’s rural areas are dealing with limited staffing as many health care workers are quarantined because of COVID. He said the additional support for rural hospitals would help limit the number of patients who have to be transferred to urban hospitals for care.
State leaders also said Thursday that they are working on a new protocol for reporting COVID-19 cases, recoveries and hospitalizations.
Jim Murphy, the communicable disease and laboratory services division administrator for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services, said DPHHS is working to move all local health departments’ COVID reports onto a single statewide database. He said that would streamline the process for the state to get updated numbers from each county.
The goal is to resolve some of the discrepancies that have appeared between case numbers in a county health department’s local report and those in the state dashboard.
“With the volumes that are being reported, it’s hard to keep those numbers always matching, so we’re looking for better ways to do that,” said Murphy.