Posted on June 15, 2020 by Kali Gillette
When Governor Bullock announced the shelter in place directive on March 26, 2020 in order to flatten the curve of COVID-19, Gallatin County was already ahead of the game. Gallatin County Health Department, led by Health Officer Matt Kelley, had been watching the pandemic unfold beginning in December and had formed an incident command system within the Health Department to address the coming spread of the virus in our community.
Mid-March the first case arrived. Kelley took a look at what agencies were likely to be involved if the situation escalated. Realizing the Health Department didn’t have the capacity to sustain the operation themselves, he brought in other public safety agencies and formed a Gallatin County Incident Command System Structure.
Patrick Lonergan, Chief of Emergency Management and Fire became the Incident Commander for Gallatin County’s COVID-19 response and together, they sketched out what functions they would need to manage the situation. First, they looked at what positions the Health Department currently had, and where they would need more help. “If it turned into a situation where the hospital became overwhelmed or needed to move patients around, we would need a lot of additional players,” Lonergan explained.
There were a variety of duties to manage. A comprehensive group of local agency partners including, but not limited to, the City of Bozeman, Gallatin County and Gallatin City-County Health Department formed a joint communication infrastructure to educate and inform the public. Public safety agencies such as law enforcement, the fire department and coroner’s office all played a role in planning. Once the team was in place, they began a daily planning cycle, starting with a 7:30 a.m. call to create a 24-hour incident action plan.
Logistics such as sourcing and hands-on delivery of equipment and supplies needed to be coordinated. Operationally, the Health Department needed help managing quarantine, isolation and contact tracing. Simultaneously, larger entities such as Bozeman Health, the City of Bozeman and Montana State University all had internal structures in place. Gallatin County Incident Command assumed responsibility for the coordination of the incident to be sure everyone was on the same page and moving in the same direction.
Planning moved along at this pace for the next 60 days. Gallatin County residents took the directive seriously and did their part by diligently staying home and actively social distancing. And then, the curve started to flatten. The social action worked.
While the shelter in place directive was successful, it wasn’t sustainable forever. “People have to go to work at some point,” Lonergan said. He goes on to explain, “I think everybody recognizes that the virus didn’t disappear when we shut down our communities, but it was a lot harder for it to move around. As people start moving around more and the tourist season starts, there will be more transmission of COVID-19. We don’t know what that’s going to look like, but it’s obviously a concern.”
The group is now preparing for the summer season. “Bozeman and Big Sky have good infrastructure,” Lonergan said, “but West Yellowstone needs support, they don’t have a lot of medical infrastructure.” Plans are in the works to enhance their capacity to be able to adequately test people. “If someone comes through who is not feeling well or is symptomatic, we want to make it easy for them to get tested so if they do have COVID-19, they will know and can act appropriately,” says Lonergan. “Another concern is exposure to the workforce. We want it to be easy for workers to get tested and not spread it through the workforce.”
The system is set up to adjust with the demand. For example, the county has also secured hotel rooms in West Yellowstone in the event travelers or workers need them. While we’re not out of the woods with COVID-19, Gallatin County is in a relatively good spot, given the coordinated efforts behind the scenes. Asked what advice he would impart to residents and visitors, Lonergan replied, “It’s important to take it seriously. Keep social distancing and taking health precautions such as washing your hands frequently and not touching your face. And if you think you’re sick, get tested, and stay home.”