A team of 11 representatives from various Richland County (RC) agencies and one private business gathered last week to discuss emergency preparedness.

Led by County Commissioner Duane Mitchell and Debra Gilbert, RC Disaster and Emergency Services (DES) coordinator, the meeting covered everything from transporting lab specimens and understanding water-test kits to information about the coronavirus.

Tim Fine, DES chair and a member of the Montana State University Extension Office, called the meeting to order. The groups reviewed and approved minutes from the previous Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) meeting on Jan. 14, 2020.

The key takeaway from the January LEPC meeting was approval of a $99,990 bid to implement a RC Disaster Mitigation Plan, which will receive federal grant support money. The LEPC group voted unanimously to accept the higher bid among the two proposals because it provides ongoing support, while the lower — $65,000 bid — reportedly did not.

With approval of the bid, the LEPC will move forward on a Hazard Analysis review and procurement policy, required for the federal grant.

LEPC members then turned their attention toward water testing.

“Richland County has the highest Tier Two reporting in the state,” said Fine, explaining the county has “a lot of oil wells.”

After noting the recent decline in oil-drilling activities has lowered the number of reports of contaminated water, the group discussed healthcare and disaster preparedness planning.

Julie Brodhead, a registered nurse with the RC Health Department, discussed the county’s Lab Transport Plan. She showed printed images of key elements from the kit, emphasizing specimens are transported across the state to Montana’s health department. The Montana state highway patrol should not be used to transport specimens, she said, because it’s considered an inefficient use of officers’ time.

Brodhead, a communicable diseases nurse, pointed to three crucial elements of emergency preparedness:

• Water-testing samples for reported contaminated water specimens.

• Specimens from individuals believed to be exposed to a chemical and/or biological substance, such as “suspicious white powder.”

• Human samples (not elaborated upon during the meeting).

Brodhead emphasized the importance of maintaining a “chain of custody” to ensure a person is responsible for specimen samples at all times.

She also informed the group the county’s Health Alert Network (HAN) system is currently running email tests to confirm electronic-mail addresses are up to date so they do not bounce back during an emergency.

Gilbert pointed out that Wadford, N.D. has implemented a full-scale hazardous materials exercise. She suggested Richland County could utilize existing Hazardous Mitigation (HazMat) funds to mirror a similar exercise.

Coronavirus Discussed

The coronavirus was addressed throughout the meeting. Although it was not on the official agenda, several LEPC members raised concerns about recent COVID-19 news. (At the time of the meeting, there were no reported cases of coronavirus either inside the state or among Montana residents visiting other areas of the United States. That status changed the following day.)

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Brodhead, who shared her expertise as a registered nurse and as a county health official, stated last Tuesday that Richland County needs to prepare for worst-case scenarios. She cited statistics showing 129 cases of seasonal flu (non-coronavirus) were reported from October 2019 to early March 2020. Brodhead noted 70 of those flu cases were among youth under the age of 18.

“This is the first time I’ve seen, in my 25 years, that many kids,” Brodhead, said of reported standard flu (non-coronavirus) cases.

“With all the hype and the scare, they just don’t do what works,” she said, alluding to public perceptions of the coronavirus as a potentially serious pandemic and taking precautionary measures.

Citing standard flu data, Brodhead reported 8,572 cases have been reported in Montana since Oct. 1, 2019 and ending Feb. 29, 2020. Of those cases, 661 people were hospitalized in the state and nine standard flu patients have died.

In Sidney, Brodhead reported seven people have been hospitalized with the flu and one person has died since last fall.

As LEPC members started asking questions about the coronavirus, Brodhead carefully addressed their concerns. She noted the coronavirus has a 14-day incubation period and that it spreads more quickly on moist areas versus dry surfaces.

Brodhead also stated people should not wear masks in public unless they have the flu or another communicable disease. Hospitals are reporting shortages of masks and sanitary gloves, she said, reiterating that people need to be considerate of reported hospital shortages before “stockpiling” masks and gloves.

“Right now, hospitals can only order masks and gloves every two weeks,” Brodhead said.

Brittney Petersen, administrator with the Richland County Health Department, last Tuesday presciently discussed the importance of accuracy if Montana starts to experience coronavirus reportings.

“The health department has been working with the hospital about messaging,” Petersen said of COVID-19 incidents. “We can try to learn from other states, which have already gone through it.

“We’re just assuming that some day it will come here,” she continued. “We’re preparing in case it does. For our staff, we write a situational update every Friday to keep people informed.”

Brodhead concurred: “We’re watching what other states are doing, just for information.

“What we’re told to do is work with the hospitals.” Brodhead continued, noting health experts are in the best position to provide guidance to local officials, and “confirm that it is coronavirus.”

March 3, 2020 LEPC Meeting Attendees

• Debra Gilbert, RC DES Coordinator

• Duane Mitchell, RC Commissioner

• Julie Brodhead, RC Health Dept.

• Tim Fine, RC Extension Office

• Kale Rasmussen, Fire Marshall and Building Code Inspector

• Heather Lunistra, RC Sanitarian

• Brittney Petersen, RC Health Dept. Administrator

• James DeHerrer, Safety and Training Manager, Sidney Sugars Inc.

• Jeff Hintz, City of Sidney Public Works Director

• Monte Silk, Sidney Public Schools Superintendent

• Ray Trumpower, RC Board of Health Member

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