RiverStone Health, which operates Yellowstone County's public health department, has hired 25 temporary workers in the last week and a half to help do the vast amount of contact tracing required as the county tackles the largest COVID-19 outbreak in the state.
The state's department of emergency services has also said it will send help to RiverStone as it works to keep on top of the outbreak, John Felton told the Billings City Council Monday night. Felton is the county's public health officer.
On Monday Yellowstone County reported it had 485 active cases, more than any other county in the state. The state reported 88 new cases of the coronavirus Monday and 48 active hospitalizations. Overall, the state had 1,248 active cases on Monday.
The county also added two more deaths to its fatality list on Monday. The two deaths happened at Billings' Canyon Creek Memory Care, bringing to 12 the total number of people who have died as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak there. The county has now had 17 deaths from COVID-19, of which 13 have come since July 6.
Felton told council members on Monday night that the increased contact tracing required for the growing COVID cases has the health department struggling to keep up. The new hires will help RiverStone catch up, he said.
So far, Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare have been able to handle the increased case load, he said.
"There's not a significant amount of pressure on the healthcare system," Felton said. "They're managing the load well."
A week ago, the county opened up ongoing COVID-19 testing for the public at the Shrine Auditorium in midtown Billings after getting a huge response at Saturday testing events held at MetraPark earlier in the month.
The day RiverStone opened the testing at the Shrine workers were immediately swamped, Felton said.
"Within an hour it was completely overwhelmed," he said. "The demand was huge."
In order to not overwhelm the testing machines, Felton limited the number of tests administered by his team to about 180 a day, he said.
That move made some residents angry, Felton said, and so the Billings Police Department has assigned officers to be at the Shrine while testing is happening to help keep the peace. The officers' time will be paid for by RiverStone, Felton said.
One of the biggest issues is the time it takes to run a test. Residents who show symptoms of the novel coronavirus are first priority and their test results come back from the state lab in a day or two, Felton said.
Residents without symptoms who chose to be tested are low priority and getting their results can take more than a week, depending on how busy the state lab is.
It's a question of capacity, Felton said. RiverStone is in the process of purchasing its own rapid testing machines, but it's currently a 10-week wait from the manufacturer.
When the outbreak first began in March, the state received 15 rapid testing machines and two of them were sent to Billings; one to St. Vincent Healthcare and the other to Billings Clinic. However, the hospitals are cautious about using them; the materials needed to run the machines are in short supply.
"They're used very sparingly," Felton said.
Later in the meeting, the council debated the merits of giving or leasing 2.5 acres of city park property in the Heights to the Better Billings Foundation, which owns and operates the Oasis water park.
Council members voted to have city staff investigate the foundation's proposal further.
Members also spent more than an hour Monday night discussing how best to play a role with Lockwood's desire to expand its targeted economic development district. Specifically, the TEDD is hoping to gain access to the city's water and wastewater systems.
TEDDs operate like tax increment districts and are for business and industrial development in rural areas. In a TEDD, a taxable valuation is established with a base year for the life of the district. Taxes paid on any increase in valuation over the life of the district stay within the district to fund improvements or projects.
The council voted to move forward exploring the issue.