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Montana care facilities must test staff, residents if they allow visitors

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Gov. Steve Bullock on Tuesday announced a new emergency rule saying that to allow visitors, nursing homes and assisted living facilities must participate in surveillance testing programs for employees and residents.

As part of a statewide testing proposal that focuses on vulnerable populations, Bullock has tried to bring testing for the coronavirus to every nursing home and assisted living facility in Montana. On Tuesday, RiverStone Health in Yellowstone County announced that nearly 80% of the residents at Canyon Creek Memory Care Community in Billings have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 15 staff members.

Bullock said the facility, run by Washington-based Koelsch Communities, had refused to participate in surveillance testing. So far 67 of the 72 long-term care facilities in the state have had their residents and employees tested and are setting up plans to conduct weekly testing of staff. Five facilities have been unwilling to participate in testing, which Bullock called "unacceptable."

"It's clear that more needs to be done to protect residents not just in our nursing homes but also in our assisted living facilities," Bullock said in a press conference from the Montana State University campus in Bozeman on Tuesday.

Out of the 217 assisted living facilities in the state, 177 have said they'll participate in testing, and 107 have completed testing so far.

"Every single assisted living facility should be conducing sentinel testing," Bullock said. "The purpose of this rule is to help prevent what happened in Canyon Creek moving forward."

At the end of June, after four months of strict limitations, Bullock opened the door to allow visitation at nursing homes and assisted living centers. 

"We went four months where our legacy Montanans in long-term care facilities weren't even allowed visitors. We did that because these are some of our most vulnerable populations, but there is also the isolation and their emotional health considerations along the way," Bullock said.

On Tuesday the state again set a record high for the number of coronavirus cases added in a single day, with 80 new cases reported.

Most of the new cases — 55 — were in Yellowstone County and tied to the memory care facility. Other counties reporting new cases Tuesday are Hill County, with five cases; Gallatin, Park and Ravalli each with three cases; Big Horn, Cascade and Madison counties each adding two cases; and Carbon, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Stillwater and Wheatland each adding a case.

Between June 27 and July 3, nearly 18,000 Montanans were tested for COVID-19.

Bullock again encouraged Montanans to wear cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus, but stopped short of mandating their use. The governor said he supported counties that enacted or are considering their own orders. He added that he hopes Montana will not reach the point of a statewide mandate, saying that without broad support it would not be successful.

"We have to make mask-wearing a habit," Bullock said. " … Wearing a mask is really about promoting respect and kindness for others to save lives and get through this together. That's just part of what it means to be a Montanan."

The governor was in Bozeman to promote a public health campaign that featured rival football coaches Jeff Choate from MSU and Bobby Hauck at the University of Montana, who appear together in a video imploring residents to wear masks.

Choate said wearing masks should unite the state, not divide it.

"This is an issue that really we all need to get behind," he said. "I know our boys and our fans want to get out to Bobcat Stadium, and I know Coach Hauck and his team feel the same way. That's just one example of us working together to take care of our health care workers and to mitigate this virus. … This is a very simple way for us to do our part. … I see this as an act of patriotism in a lot of ways and pride in our state."

While Bullock said Montana has "put in place what we need to manage the virus at its current levels," he also said residents are not taking necessary precautions in crowd settings such as at six recent weddings and in the Canyon Creek situation.

"Those are all to a degree preventable cases," Bullock said. "I'm tired. I know Montanans are tired of four months of COVID-19. But we can't let that fatigue allow us to let our guard down."

Also Tuesday, the campaign for Republican state Auditor Matt Rosendale, who is running for Montana's lone U.S. House seat, said Rosendale and his wife, Jean, tested negative for COVID-19 after potentially being exposed at a campaign event in Big Sky last week. The event included Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., who tested positive after the event.

"Neither Matt nor Jean have shown any symptoms, but out of an abundance of caution and a desire to ensure the health of other Montanans, they will self-quarantine for the recommended 14 days from the date of their exposure and have suspended in-person campaign events until the end of the quarantine period," read a statement from the campaign.

Republican State Auditor candidate Troy Downing also said Tuesday that he tested negative following his attendance at an outdoor reception at the event.

Downing, who lives in Bozeman, was tested twice with negative results, his campaign manager Sam Loveridge said in an email.

"Downing will continue to follow guidelines and will continue to test as deemed prudent," Loveridge said.

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte's campaign said Tuesday it is still waiting for testing results. Gianforte, who is running for governor, was not at the event with Guilfoyle, but his wife Susan and running mate Kristen Juras attended. All are self-quarantining.


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Related to this story

U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Republican running for Montana governor this year, is self-quarantining and will be tested for the coronavirus after Kimberly Guilfoyle, the girlfriend of Donald Trump, Jr., tested positive for the virus several days after attending a campaign event in Big Sky that Gianforte did not attend but his wife and his running mate did.

The state’s largest hospitals said this week that they were able to increase their capacity and develop plans to handle a potential surge in coronavirus cases, but still face supply chain challenges.

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