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Gallatin County is experiencing a high level of transmission of COVID-19, part of a growing surge of cases placing stress on the local health care system and limiting the ability of contact tracers to investigate positive cases.

As of Friday, Sept. 24, the seven day average of new daily cases was 77.9 cases, according to the Gallatin City-County Health Department’s weekly report, which is roughly equal to or greater than the peak of cases the county experienced during a surge in January 2021. According to the Harvard Institute for Global Health, a daily case count above 25 cases is considered a tipping point.

The average positivity rate decreased to 12% from 14.1% the previous week. According to the health department’s reports, a positivity rate above 10% indicates more testing may be needed in order to avoid missing cases in the county. 

On Friday, there were 27 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital, according to Kallie Kujawa, Bozeman Health’s COVID-19 incident commander. Ten of 20 patients in the intensive care unit were COVID-19 positive, and 17 of 39 patients in the medical unit were COVID-19 positive. Both the critical care and medical units, as well as the hospital’s surgical unit, were at 100% capacity. 

The health department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention classify the level of community transmission as high. As of publication, Gallatin County had 799 active COVID-19 cases and 32 active hospitalizations.

Due to a backlog of cases created by the high level of transmission, the health department announced in a press call on Friday, Sept. 10, that contact tracers would begin prioritizing investigations for people in certain categories. The investigations being prioritized are for cases among people 65 years old and older, 18 years old or younger, students at MSU and other higher education organizations, healthcare workers, people living or working in congregate settings or those who are immunocompromised.

As of Friday, Sept. 24, There were 50 active cases of COVID-19 associated with MSU.

Though Gallatin County Health Officer Lori Christenson said Friday there are no current plans to implement local health rules such as a mask mandate, she encouraged mask wearing indoors.

 

“That is definitely always an option for our community and I would strongly urge, as has been the recommendation for a number of months now since we have been experiencing high transmission, that individuals should be wearing a mask in indoor public settings,” Christenson said.

The health department, Bozeman Health and MSU are also encouraging people to get vaccinated to slow the spread of the virus. MSU is offering free vaccine appointments through University Health Partners at the university’s vaccine webpage, and vaccinated students can enter the university’s vaccine sweepstakes program for prizes such as financial assistance and ski passes. 

“We’ve seen really strong turnout for that [vaccine sweepstakes],” MSU spokesperson Michael Becker said in the press call on Friday. “The numbers keep going up with the folks who are in that vaccine sweepstakes, more than 4,300 currently.” 

MSU extended its indoor mask requirement to include all indoor spaces rather than instructional spaces on Friday, Sept. 17. 

“The more we can do to get people vaccinated, though, is really the key thing and we push that hard,” Becker said.

The quarantine and isolation housing available at MSU has been enough to address demand so far, he also said. As of publication, there were six students in isolation housing and none in quarantine housing. Students in isolation have confirmed cases of COVID-19, while students in quarantine housing are close contacts of someone who has tested positive.

Christenson said 60% of Gallatin County residents are now vaccinated. “I also wanted to share that we continue to see people receiving a first and second dose,” she said. “That is good news and we continue to want to see that upward trend.”

Three quarters of COVID-19 cases in the county are among unvaccinated residents, Christenson said, and roughly one quarter of cases are breakthrough cases among vaccinated residents. “What’s important to note here is that we are seeing a rise in our cases. It’s not unusual then to see a rise in breakthrough cases,” she said. A majority of COVID-19 hospitalizations are also among unvaccinated residents, Christenson said. 

According to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services, 79% of COVID-19 deaths between April 1 and Sept. 17 (212 of 269 deaths) occurred among unvaccinated Montanans.

“There are no current supply concerns as it relates to [COVID-19] vaccines, and we will continue to offer those appointments so that there’s opportunities throughout the community and throughout the coming weeks to be able to get an appointment,” Christenson said.