Lewis & Clark Public Health to add epidemiologist for COVID-19 response

Posted at 7:22 PM, Oct 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-13 21:22:04-04

HELENA — Lewis and Clark County leaders have voted to bring in a new specialist, to help Lewis and Clark Public Health analyze data and make decisions about their response to COVID-19.

On Tuesday, the Lewis and Clark County Commission accepted an additional $183,000 in state funding for the next two years, to pay for hiring a communicable disease epidemiologist to support the COVID response.

The epidemioloigist will be responsible for helping Public Health make more targeted efforts to address the spread of the coronavirus.

“They’re going to mine out and evaluate the case investigation data, the contact tracing data, the data around what we believe at this point are particular sources of infection, such as events,” said Eric Merchant, Lewis and Clark Public Health’s Disease Control and Prevention Division administrator.

Merchant said their work depends on having accurate data and good analysis of what it means.

“It’s a matter of making decisions on data – stuff that actually happens,” he said. “Not what we sometimes believe is happening, or it feels like something is happening, and then when we look at the data, we say, ‘Well, what’s actually happening is this, and we know that because we can see the facts.’”

LCPH has added dozens of people to its staff to work on things like contact tracing. Merchant said his division has gone from 15 employees to 54 in recent months. However, as the number of cases in Lewis and Clark County has risen in what Merchant described as a “straight-up trajectory,” responding to COVID-19 remains a challenge even with that added capacity.

“We’re stressed to the point where even the resources, the surge capacity that we brought in is not enough,” he said.

Merchant said this could be a difficult period with the virus, especially as the weather gets colder and people spend more time indoors. He asked everyone in the community to continue the steps health leaders have been emphasizing – washing their hands, maintaining distance, staying home when sick and avoiding large gatherings.

“Practice what you’ve learned,” he said. “It’s all about personal responsibility.”

Merchant said it will take some time to hire the new epidemiologist, but they hope to have the position filled in the next few months.