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Coronavirus or COVID-19? Billings health expert explains why terms are important

Posted at 2:49 PM, Mar 12, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-12 16:49:40-04

As COVID-19 makes its way through the United States, Billings health officials stressed the importance Tuesday of calling the virus by its proper name while giving an update on testing.

“I think it’s important that we use that terminology because certainly people can have a coronavirus infection and not have COVID-19," said John Felton, the Yellowstone County Health Officer and RiverStone Health CEO.

Felton said the coronavirus is a group of diseases, including many common illnesses treated every season. The COVID-19 virus is the name of this newest strain that the World Health Organization just classified as a pandemic.

On Wednesday, a Maryland officials said a Montana woman tested positive for COVID-19. She is in her 70s and is a part-time Lake County resident. The woman contracted the virus outside Montana and has not been in the Treasure State since November 2019, which is outside the incubation period. The positive test result came back Tuesday.

In Yellowstone County, the Unified Health Command has put procedures in place at hospitals to evaluate possible COVID-19 positive patients.

The command is made up of Billings Clinic, St. Vincent Healthcare, RiverStone Health and Yellowstone County officials.

“We’ve got really clear processes that we execute consistently across all of our organizations for how we evaluate patients," said Felton, who leads the health command.

The procedures answer the questions of when doctors evaluate patients, when doctors will perform a test, and how the test is collected and transported to Helena.

The trouble with COVID-19 is that it shares similar symptoms with influenza, Felton said. The symptoms for COVID-19 are shortness of breath, cough or a temperature above 100.4 degrees, Felton said.

“This is cold and flu season. There is a lot of stuff out there. The process really is to see if we can rule out other causes of these symptoms first," Felton said.

COVID-19 tests are in a limited supply across the country. Felton said this means doctors can't test everyone who feels they have the virus.

The first step is to ask, "does this person have influenza? Can we rule out other respiratory diseases? If we go through that process, nothing shows up as causing the symptoms and that person still meets the case definition of fever, shortness of breath and cough. Then in our state, it is the responsibility of the local health agency to authorize COVID-19 testing," Felton said.

If a person has been exposed to infected people, Felton said they should self-quarantine at home for 14 days and stay away from healthy people. After that, if a person has no symptoms, they can go back to their day-to-day lives. This advice is common with any infectious disease.

If a person feels symptoms get worse, it's time to get to the doctor, Felton said.

If a person tests positive for COVID-19, they will be placed in isolation at the hospital to reduce the sick person's exposure to healthy people.

As the Yellowstone County health officer, Felton has the authority to place people under quarantine or isolation, but he said most people will cooperate when asked.

“I can tell you that in the 16 years that I’ve been here we’ve done that one time. It is a very infrequent authority," Felton said.

The situation on COVID-19 changes by the hour. Felton said good, accurate information is key. For questions about the virus, visit cdc.gov or riverstonehealth.org.

Those sites answer questions about when someone should see the doctor and the risk associated with traveling to certain places.

If you would like to talk to someone, RiverStone Health has set up a public health information line at 406-651-6415. The line isn't staffed 24/7, but messages are gotten back to multiple times per day.

“That isn’t a line to call up and say ‘I’m sick what do I do?’ Individual illness needs to be addressed by a person’s medical care provider. But for general questions about prevention or information that line is good to call.