Nurses at the Missoula City-County Health Department's new COVID-19 testing site had less reason to worry about the potential of a storm when dark clouds loomed overhead as they greeted patients on Wednesday.
The new testing site at 4025 Flynn Lane, the old Garden City Warehouse off West Broadway, features a climate-controlled warehouse for drive-through testing where nurses can take respite from hot temperatures in the summer and from colder weather come winter.
"The testing team comes out and just does it like we did at the fairgrounds, but it just minimizes how many people we have outside," said Becca Wallace, testing branch director for Missoula County's COVID-19 Incident Command team. "We can't avoid like having a few people out here, but it minimizes exposure to the elements."
The health department started packing up supplies at the former site at the fairgrounds on Friday and moved to the new site on Flynn Lane by Monday morning without any interruptions in testing.
At the new site, patients pull up to an outdoor sun tent where they are greeted and instructed to drive around the back of the building and through a loading door of the warehouse. Once inside the warehouse, but still in their vehicle, patients complete a self-swab test with the guidance of nurses. As they drive away after completing a test, patients are bid farewell by signs featuring photos of staff members' dogs and sayings like "Get some good rest and feel better soon," and "Take extra special care of yourself."
The health department signed a lease for the facility last week and began testing on Monday. The new facility will allow the health department to continue testing into the heat of the summer, wildfire season and into the winter. The location also features office spaces for medical and support staff such as call center staff, and storage space for housing testing supplies and equipment.
Testing by the county is still by appointment only. County residents or frontline healthcare workers currently experiencing COVID symptoms should call 258-INFO, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and select Option 2 to connect with a public health nurse to screen for symptoms and schedule an appointment.
Wallace said the county is able to test about 72 patients a day and has been averaging about 50 per day this week. Rapid testing, which consists of the same testing process but yields results in about 20 minutes, is also on its way. Wallace said the health department is getting supplies for rapid testing and ironing out operations, such as deciding where to put the lab for processing the rapid tests.
The county's pursuit of rapid testing comes as it is still waiting on some test results from July 17, 18 and 19, Wallace said. Missoula County experienced a delay in testing results when the state lab became backed up with tests and started sending tests to other out-of-state labs for processing, which were also backed up.
The state has stopped sending tests to the labs that were backed up, so patients who visit the Missoula County testing site are now getting their results within 24 to 48 hours, according to Wallace.
"Some people have been waiting a long time, and then people who tested Monday already got their results so we're back to that," Wallace said.
Missoula County announced 12 new positive COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing it to a cumulative total of 232 cases. There are 62 active cases in Missoula County, with more than 270 close contacts, 169 recoveries and one death. Four non-county residents remain hospitalized.
The state of Montana is reporting 3,676 cumulative COVID-19 cases, which is up 201 cases from Tuesday. There are 1,410 active cases with 59 active hospitalizations across the state. There have been 54 deaths in Montana related to COVID-19, which is three more lives lost since Tuesday.
The Missoula City-County Health Department is continuing to meet weekly with epidemiologists and graduate students at the University of Montana's School of Public and Community Health Sciences to review current epidemiological information, which is shared each week on the county's website, Missoula County COVID-19 Incident Commander Cindy Farr said in a video Wednesday.
The data includes cases by age group, gender, exposure type and travel history, and can be found on the county's website under "COVID-19 epidemiology info."
The health department has worked closely with UM since throughout its COVID-19 response efforts, although the health department worked closely with UM on a variety of things prior to COVID-19 such as research collaboration, internship opportunities, professional development, sharing resources and more.
The health department does not share any personal confidential health information such as location information about specific cases or their close contacts, apart from identifying the county where a positive case is reported.
"We work privately and confidentially with individuals and organizations if and when they're impacted by COVID," Farr said in a video.
However, the health department may notify residents and visitors of possible exposure tied to a location if and when a situation merits a formal public health announcement, such as a positive case at a major restaurant or a major event with a lot of people coming and going.
In her update, Farr thanked the Missoula County Fairgrounds for helping the health department get a testing site set up quickly to respond to the county’s urgent testing needs in the spring and early summer.
Wallace said she hopes to have screening nurses who schedule patients moved from the basement of the health department downtown Missoula to the new facility within the next couple of weeks.
"The public won't see any difference at all, but for us, that'll be a huge improvement to have all of the operations under one roof," Wallace said.
Contact tracers and investigators are under a different branch and will still be located at the health department.