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Roughly one in four people who contracted COVID-19 in Gallatin County between August and September were fully vaccinated, according to an analysis from the Gallatin City-County Health Department.

The health department studied cases from August to September and hospitalizations from April to September, looking at the rate of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals.

From April to September, 131 of the 148 of people hospitalized from COVID-19 in Gallatin County were unvaccinated. That’s about nine in 10.

“So roughly one in 10 hospitalizations are related to breakthrough cases,” said Lori Christenson, the county’s public health officer during a Friday press conference.

While breakthrough cases occur, fully vaccinated individuals are still less likely to be hospitalized, become severely ill or die. Unvaccinated people are 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those fully vaccinated, according to a new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 58% of Gallatin County’s eligible population — everyone 12 years old and older — are fully vaccinated. Children 12 years and older still have the lowest vaccination rate at 36%.

The county’s percent positivity rate — the percentage of people who test positive for the virus of all people tested — was at 12.6%, a 26% increase from the previous week.

Christenson said enough people were likely being tested and that the positivity rate was high because of the high community transmission.

The seven-day average number of daily COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people in Gallatin County increased to 50 as of Thursday, a 182% increase from a month ago on Aug. 5, according to the health department’s weekly COVID-19 report.

As of Friday, Gallatin County had 438 active COVID-19 cases — up from 314 last Friday — and 21 people were hospitalized. In total, 69 county residents have died.

The state had 7,252 active cases, 338 hospitalizations and 1,834 Montanans have died. This week, Montana twice added more than 1,000 daily cases. It’s the first time the state has added over 1,000 cases in a day since November.

With the high number of active cases in the county, the health department is no longer able to conduct full case investigations for each positive case, Christenson said.

“This is not an easy decision,” she said.

The health department is seeing a backlog of cases, with double and triple the number of cases the county’s five tracers can investigate.

The department will begin to prioritize case investigations, only conducting investigations for people who are identified through testing to be health care workers, immunocompromised and those living and working in congregate settings; people 65 and older and 18 years and younger; and students at Montana State University or other higher education institutions

People who do not meet the prioritized criteria will have to identify and reach out to close contacts themselves.

“As resources allow, we’ll expand contact tracing to people outside those categories,” Christenson said.

The health department is still a resource for people who test positive or are close contacts, as needed.

“(People) should absolutely contact us if they have questions and concerns, or if they need additional support with housing, food or other resources so they can safely stay at home,” she said.

The department is looking to hire more contact tracers, needing to double the tracers to keep up with demand, but is struggling to find staff, Christenson said.

With contact tracers seeing triple the workload, Bozeman Health said it could see as many as 50 COVID-19 patients by October.

“That’s more than double what we’ve had for COVID positive patients,” said Douglas Hartnett. “That could make a big difference from where we’re standing now.”

Hartnett, an anesthesiologist at Bozeman Health, outlined projections for the hospital, conducted by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, or IHME.

If Bozeman Health sees that many patients in October, that could impact its ability to provide surgical services, like elective surgeries, he said.

“We need to be ready for what’s coming,” Hartnett said.

The IHME estimates that the state of Montana estimates a supposed peak of infections in mid-September, when the state could see around 7,000 daily case counts. The need for hospital beds may peak in October, with more than 525 hospital beds and 125 ICU beds needed, Hartnett said.

Hartnett urged vaccination, saying that the wave in COVID-19 cases now is, for the most part, preventable.

“This feels different from last time. We have a way out of this and I’m hoping we can move forward with vaccinations more than we are right now,” he said.

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Juliana Sukut can be reached at 582-2630 or jsukut@dailychronicle.com

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