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Governor says Montana will expand surveillance COVID-19 testing

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Posted at 2:43 PM, Jul 22, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-22 20:27:53-04

Governor Steve Bullock announced on Wednesday afternoon that the state will soon be able to expand surveillance COVID-19 testing for critical front-line health care personnel, essential workers, and other groups thanks to a partnership with Montana State University in Bozeman.

During a news conference, Bullock said that MSU researchers will begin the surveillance testing next week, with a capability of testing 500 people per day. The Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services (DPHHS) will determine which Montana populations need to be tested for surveillance and then will ship the samples to a designated laboratory at MSU.

MSU will use four qPCR machines to do the surveillance testing at the direction of DPHHS.

“Surveillance testing of asymptomatic individuals is a powerful tool in helping slow the spread of the virus in our Montana communities,” Bullock said. “Montana State University has been an enthusiastic partner in helping find a Montana solution to our testing capacity and I am incredibly grateful for their partnership as we work together to protect the health of Montanans.”

“As the state’s land-grant university, this kind of service and outreach to the people of Montana is what we are called to do,” said MSU president Waded Cruzado. “Montana State University’s researchers have poured their creative energies into this project as well as other important endeavors that benefit the communities we serve.

“This initiative is a step in the right direction and will serve us well in helping to detect the virus among asymptomatic groups of people so that we can take quick action to stop the virus from spreading,” said Montana National Guard Major General Matthew Quinn, who is leading the Governor’s Coronavirus Task Force.

Bullock also announced that the state has finalized a contract with a reference lab, MAKO Medical in North Carolina, to begin processing an anticipated 1,000 tests each day from Montana. He said the state will take a "measured approach" to ensure a reasonable turn-around time in receiving test results.



What is surveillance testing? The University of Michigan School of Public Health recently spoke with Emily Martin, an associate professor of epidemiology, who explained that understanding what surveillance testing doesn’t mean is equally important as the test results themselves.

“[Surveillance testing] doesn’t mean that everybody gets tested,” Martin said. “Instead, surveillance means that we test the right samples of the population in a way that allows us to make inferences as efficiently as possible. It doesn’t mean that we test everybody because it’s important that we strike this balance between getting the information we need and saving enough tests for clinical care.”

Martin went on to say that surveillance testing comes as a second priority to clinical care. “In the initial days of an outbreak, as a virus moves into an area, the testing for that virus will often be centralized at the health department, and the goal is to define when the virus is here,” Martin said. “Once that’s established, then testing focuses on supporting clinical care and making sure the patients who are most severe are getting taken care of. And once that is under control, then we move onto this surveillance phase where we try to both continue taking care of people who need clinical care while also defining the epidemic as it rises and falls to be able to inform public health. That surveillance system is one that will come into play as the acute situation gets under control.”



Health officials added 104 new COVID-19 cases to the Montana Response COVID-19 tracking map on Wednesday, with 1,228 cases reported as active.

Note: Numbers reported by the state each day occasionally differ from those reported by county public health departments due to periodic lag times in reporting data to the state. MTN News counts the updated data individual counties report throughout a given day.

  • TOTAL CASES & RECOVERIES: There have now been 2,813 cumulative cases statewide, and 1,543 people have recovered from the virus.
  • HOSPITALIZATIONS: There are currently 52 patients hospitalized. There have been 179 hospitalizations due to COVID-19 since the pandemic began.
  • ACTIVE CASES: The state reports there are currently 1,228 active COVID-19 cases in Montana.
  • TESTING: The number of tests increased by 2,516 over the previous 24-hour reporting period, for a new cumulative state-wide total of 143,518.
  • DEATHS: The cumulative number of deaths in Montana is now 42.

Bullock announced last Wednesday a statewide directive requiring face coverings/masks in Montana. The directive is effective immediately in counties that have four or more active cases of COVID-19. The directive requires that masks be used in most indoor settings and where social distancing cannot be maintained. Bullock said businesses will have the right to deny entry of anyone not wearing a mask. Click here for details on the directive.