Community conversations

Matt Kelley, right, who serves as the health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department, explains that creating an updated community health improvement plan will take some time and that the communities in Gallatin County play a vital role in the process.

For several weeks, Montanans and residents of Gallatin County have collectively taken comfort that we have seen zero confirmed cases of 2019 novel coronavirus (covid-19) close to home. To date, not a single case has been identified in Montana.

In the days and weeks ahead, however, it may become necessary for us to adapt to a new reality. 

As the nation’s public health system increases its capacity to test more people for covid-19, the likelihood increases that we will detect cases closer to home. It is possible we will see cases within our community, and we may even know a friend, neighbor, or acquaintance recovering from the disease at home. 

This new reality may be unsettling, even frightening, in part because the disease is new and unfamiliar. But as we prepare for the weeks and months ahead, it is critical that we all understand that each of us holds power to protect ourselves in the event that we do see confirmed cases in our hometowns and local communities.

There is no way to completely insulate ourselves from risk from covid-19, or influenza, or any other many other communicable diseases. Humans have lived with this reality and risk forever, even as we have made great advances in slowing down disease spread and reducing risk. In the early stages of a new disease, public health officials may seek to isolate the pathogen by creating barricades against the disease such as quarantines or limitations on travel. These are important public health measures that remain a bulwark in our effort to slow down the disease.

But as time passes, these barricades often are insufficient to completely stop the spread of disease. So while the barricades (face masks, quarantines) generate outsized public attention, it is perhaps more critical for most of us to focus on things we can all do to protect ourselves and slow down the disease. 

The very good news is that many of the things we can do to protect against covid-19 are simple, familiar, and 

possible without expense. They include:

Self Care:  While the relentless news cycle may drive a rush to buy facemasks and cause otherwise healthy people to retreat into isolation, these measures often provide false comfort. Instead, we know that the best defense against any disease happens inside your body and there are some things everyone can do to build those defenses.

This starts with taking care of your body. Eat nutritious foods to fuel your immune system, drink plenty of fluids, go outside to exercise, and get adequate sleep. Talk to your doctor if you do get sick, but don’t panic at the first symptom. Remember there are many viruses and bacteria that may be causing illness, so don’t assume every sniffle or cough is covid-19. 

It’s also important to know that the best current evidence shows that large majority (~80%) of people who are diagnosed with covid-19 will experience mild symptoms similar to the common cold.  

And don’t forget it’s not too late to get your seasonal influenza shot. It won’t protect you against covid -19, but it may prevent influenza and unnecessary illness. 

Social Distancing:  If you do get sick, consult your healthcare provider and stay home from work or school. If you live with others, take reasonable measures to distance yourself from loved ones or roommates … the same as you would if you had influenza.

 Employers and organizations should review sick leave policies and plan for increased absences due to illness. Keeping sick staff at home may be the best defense against other absences. Managers should work to build in redundancy for your most critical employees, and where possible plan for ways to allow people to work from home if necessary. 

Don’t panic, and be kind:  It is also important that we all take steps to manage our own stress and anxiety around covid-19. Be choosy about your sources of information, and don’t believe everything you read on social media. Set aside enough time to be informed of the current situation, but consider limiting time spent reading, viewing, or listening to avoid excessive worry and anxiety. 

Likewise, be careful about jumping to conclusions about others. Covid-19 does not discriminate based on nationality, or ethnicity, or appearance and neither should we. One of our greatest advantages over the virus is our shared humanity and sense of community, and we should not surrender these advantages to fear, anger, or suspicion.   

If you know someone who is sick or under quarantine, send them an email or note of support. Don’t stay away from Asian-owned restaurants and businesses; there is no good reason to do so. And if you are having trouble coping with the stress, reach out to talk to a friend, loved one, or counselor. 

Our shared effort to deal with this virus is likely to be a marathon rather than a sprint. In the weeks and months ahead, we are likely to see changes in how the disease spreads, our understanding of the virus, and how public health officials recommend countering the virus. Our best strengths as we move forward will be our shared sense of community, our support for one another, and our willingness to cope with risk and stress by staying healthy, informed, and open to change. 


Matt Kelley is the health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department. He is a also a recovering newspaperman.

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