Old Faithful

Visitors swarm Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park during a normal season. (Neal Herbert/NPS)

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As Yellowstone National Park moves forward with a phased reopening, public health officials in Gallatin and Park counties are working to prepare for the possibility that it leads to a spike in COVID-19 cases.

It’s not yet known when Montana’s entrances to the park will open, but Wyoming’s two entrances will allow visitors through the southern portion of the park on Monday. Gov. Steve Bullock said Wednesday that Montana’s entrances won’t open before June 1.

West Yellowstone is one of the busiest gateways into the park. It’s also particularly isolated and limited in its health care resources, Gallatin County Health Officer Matt Kelley said.

The primary provider for the town of about 1,400 is the small Community Health Partners West Yellowstone Clinic, which has five on staff for most of the year and a few more seasonal employees through the summer. Kelley said the clinic has its hands full during a normal summer when 15,000 people could be staying overnight in the town on any given day. Things get complicated when a highly contagious virus is added to the mix.

“For the National Park Service to open the park, that comes with significant public health risk,” Kelley said.

Kelley noted there’s also economic risk to not opening as businesses in West Yellowstone continue to hurt financially the longer they’re closed.

Thousands of people could be drawn to the park, Kelley said, and some may carry the virus with them. Kelley said the Gallatin City-County Health Department will be working on three main goals before the entrances open: increasing testing capacity in the area, increasing the capacity of health care providers in the area and ensuring there are places where people can quarantine and isolate if they contract the virus.

Staff from the health department, Bozeman Health, Community Health Partners, the park service’s provider, Medcor, and the town of West Yellowstone met Wednesday to discuss how they would collaborate on these goals. Kelley said it’s also important for there to be clear communication between Montana, Wyoming and the park service so that an outbreak doesn’t hop state lines via the park and go undetected.

Those conversations between public officials and health care providers will largely be informed by what testing reveals about the prevalence of the virus in the area.

Buck Taylor, spokesperson for CHP and a Gallatin City-County Board of Health member, said Community Health Partners is looking at how it can increase testing in West Yellowstone and may start surveillance testing, which involves collecting specimens from a sample of asymptomatic people to cast a wider net while tracking the virus.

CHP may try to increase its physical capacity at its West Yellowstone clinic by adding a trailer to its parking lot, Taylor said, although a major spike in cases would require help from Bozeman Health or Medcor in the park. Taylor said CHP is trying to prepare for “all scenarios.”

“We’ve been thinking about what the summer might look like, and unfortunately, no one has a crystal ball,” Taylor said.

Kelley said health department staff like sanitarians and public health nurses may spend more time in West to help people and businesses prepare for the park to reopen. He said contact tracing, used to track where the virus could spread after a case is confirmed, can be done mostly over the phone and will not require more boots on the ground in West.

The next closest health care provider to West Yellowstone is Bozeman Health’s Big Sky Medical Center. Kathryn Bertany, president of the medical center, said operations there won’t change much when West Yellowstone reopens because protocols are already in place to deal with the virus and a surge in cases.

Bertany said the medical center will be able to double its capacity of overnight stays from four to eight beginning Monday as a result of recent donations given to the Bozeman Health center.

“We feel very well prepared for an increase in demand for our services,” Bertany said.

Big Sky Medical Center is also the site of one of four Bozeman Health drive-up testing locations where specimens are collected. Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital began running tests onsite in its lab last month. Bertany said the goal is to secure more equipment to increase that capacity and even to run tests onsite in Big Sky.

“We have the wheels in motion to be in an even better position as the summer progresses,” Bertany said.

Laurel Desnick, health officer for the Park County Health Department, said that Livingston and Gardiner are also in a good position for Yellowstone to reopen. She said that with tests being collected in Livingston and Mammoth and with ramped up contact tracing, Park County is prepared for Gardiner’s entrance to open some time in June.

“Having that June 1 deadline gives quite a bit of time to feel confident and ready,” Desnick said.

Desnick said she had just completed an application to ask for federal reimbursement to pay for housing to be used for those needing a place to stay while in isolation or quarantine. She said she hopes the housing isn’t needed, but that it’s important to have available.

Desnick said the health department is also looking into surveillance testing, like CHP, to study the prevalence of the virus.

“If all goes well, we’d like that in place before a large influx of tourists come so we have a baseline,” Desnick said.

Kelley said it’s good that Yellowstone is doing a phased reopening, that employees will be living separately and not in close quarters and that large tour buses will be kept out for the foreseeable future. However, West Yellowstone is somewhat more remote and isolated than Gardiner, and because of that, Kelley said he would like more time to prepare. It’s still not known how much time there will be.

“We’re going to be preparing for as if (it will open) June 1,” Kelley said.

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Shaylee Ragar can be reached at sragar@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2607.