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Gov. Steve Bullock said he would announce Thursday a directive that would allow visitors at nursing home facilities as long as those places adhere to strict federal guidelines.

Under the directive, Bullock said, nursing homes and assisted living facilities may allow visitors in accordance with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services guidance and after notifying residents and their families.

“The federal guidance for what nursing homes should have in place before they allow visitation is very strict,” he said.

Bullock said those facilities should have sufficient protective gear, and implement and continue testing for residents and staff. He said the state has provided testing for willing nursing home residents and staff.

Nursing homes should continue encouraging virtual visitation, Bullock said, especially for visitors from out of state or those from areas with community transmission of the virus. Those who come to the facilities should be screened for symptoms and have their temperatures taken before being allowed inside the nursing home.

If there’s been a case of the virus in the nursing home within 28 days, Bullock said, “facilities certainly shouldn’t allow visitors.”

The decision was made after consulting with an assisted living visitation policy group made up of providers, nurses, facility managers and the Department of Public Health and Human Services, he said.

“It is my hope that our legacy Montanans, particularly during the summer months, will be able to have some social interaction in safe ways, such as outdoors with their loved ones,” Bullock said.

Bullock made the announcement at a news conference alongside state health officials. They talked about the recent increase in cases in Montana, how aggressive contact tracing efforts helped find additional cases in separate counties and how wearing a mask likely could have prevented spread.

There have been 136 new cases of the virus statewide in the past week. There were 174 active cases Wednesday, and the state had recorded a total of 766 cases. Bullock said Montana still has the lowest cases per capita and saw the third lowest total increase in the country during that period.

However, Bullock said, Montanans do have to recognize that there is an increase in cases. He warned people not to let their guard down. All it takes is one person, he said, and noted there are situations where the virus is “smoldering” in towns, and health officials don’t know how it got there.

“The work of public health is to make sure that the clusters don’t turn into a bigger event, or a wildfire,” Bullock said.

Bullock said out-of-state people visiting family here or those returning from travel pose a greater risk for exposure than tourists coming to Montana.

Health officials gave examples of how the virus has spread from residents like a group of people traveling to medical appointments in one car or people attending multiple events in different counties and towns.

Dr. Greg Holzman, the state medical officer, said Montanans need to work together to minimize risk as they continue living with COVID-19.

“We don’t want to go backwards,” he said. “We want people to feel safe. We want people to be safe.”

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.