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Health Department Updates State Lawmakers On COVID-19 Response

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services
Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services

State health department officials gave legislators an update Monday on the agency’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials say that response has a lot of moving pieces, but they’re learning fast and keeping pace.

Health department director Sheila Hogan told lawmakers Monday that applications for SNAP, or the federal food stamp program, jumped by 70 percent after stay-at-home orders were issued in late March. Staff are now helping clients over the phone, and help-line hours have been extended to handle the additional caseload. Montanans without internet or phone access can still book office meetings on an emergency basis.

Hogan told members of the Legislature's Children, Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee the agency is encouraging people to report suspected child abuse and neglect. Reported cases of abuse have declined over the past two months, which officials attribute to the move to online learning at schools and fewer chances for teachers to notice abuse.

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services

During the oversight meeting, Todd Harwell told legislators that Montana’s COVID-19 testing capability has dramatically improved over the past two months.

Harwell, the state health department’s Public Health and Safety Administrator says the testing team is working seven days a week and now providing same day test results. He says local and tribal health officials have done contact tracing on over 2,000 Montanans.

"This is really good work, and I think one of the key reasons why Montana has the second lowest incident rate of COVID in the United States. I think we’re second only to Alaska," Harwell says.

Lawmakers on both sides of the political aisle largely praised the agency for its reaction to the pandemic.

Helena Democratic Representative Mary Caferro says, "We’re the second lowest in the nation. I think it's really important to recognize that that didn’t just happen. It was because of a great, timely and a very bold response."

Copyright 2020 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.