Mask Wild

A couple strolls through downtown Bozeman on July 24, 2020. The Gallatin City-County Health Board approved a mask mandate on Friday. The new mandate makes it a misdemeanor for not complying with the rule. 

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Gov. Steve Bullock said Tuesday that his office is working with officials in nine “hotspot” counties — including Gallatin County — to determine if additional local restrictions are needed to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

He did not specify what those measures might be or if they would come from his office or local health departments.

“I know that capacity to get our hands around this virus in some of these communities is actually getting difficult,” Bullock said. “We’ll be working with local public health officers in the upcoming days to determine if additional common-sense measures should be taken to both deploy additional resources and/or steps to limit the spread.”

In June and July, 80% of the state’s cases have been in Big Horn, Cascade, Flathead, Gallatin, Lake, Lewis and Clark, Madison, Missoula and Yellowstone counties.

Younger people are contributing significantly to the recent increase in cases, Bullock said. Those younger than 40 comprise 75% of Gallatin County cases. In Yellowstone and Missoula counties, more than half of cases are in those younger than 40.

Nineteen percent of Yellowstone County cases are connected to assisted living or long-term care facilities. An outbreak at Canyon Creek Memory Care in Billings has led to the deaths of 15 residents.

The state recently provided contact tracing support to Yellowstone County where local resources are stretched thin.

The state is in regular contact with local health departments and will work to provide them with the assistance they need, Bullock said.

On Wednesday, the state reported 201 new cases for a total of 1,410 active cases with 59 hospitalizations. A total of 3,676 Montanans have tested positive for COVID-19 since the pandemic began.

The state also announced three more deaths on Wednesday, bringing the total to 55. More than half of the state’s deaths have occurred in the last three weeks.

Gallatin County reported 18 new cases on Wednesday for a total of 61 active cases with four hospitalizations. There have been 824 total cases and 761 recoveries. Two people have died from COVID-19.

The rate of positive test results is about 4%, which is about the level it was in late March when Bullock issued a stay-at-home order. Bullock said, for now, he is not considering another stay-at-home order because more is now known about the virus and other, less disruptive measures are available.

At his press conference on Wednesday, Bullock repeatedly urged Montanans to avoid large gatherings, to wear a mask, to practice social distancing and to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly.

He also showed a public service announcement from a new statewide campaign titled “Mask Up Montana” and invited Helena resident Caty Gondeiro, 23, who recently contracted COVID-19, to speak about the seriousness of the virus even for those who are young.

“One of the most important things that we can do to keep moving forward in tackling this virus is by continuing to make mask-wearing a habit,” Bullock said. “It’s as simple as this. The more Montanans are educated on the importance of masks and follow the requirements, the more likely that we are to get our hands around this virus.”

It is too soon to know whether the statewide mask mandate, which went into effect two weeks ago, has slowed the spread of the virus, Bullock said, but he pointed to Arizona where the number of new cases has declined likely due to widespread mask-wearing, social distancing and limits on large gatherings.

Bullock also said the state’s surveillance testing program is returning after a national testing shortage forced Quest Diagnostics, the lab the state used for the program, to stop taking new tests. Quest Diagnostics has about 7,000 Montana tests left to process and will do so by Friday, Bullock said.

Montana has switched to a new private lab for the surveillance testing program. Mako Medical, a North Carolina facility, has already run 4,000 tests. Montana State University will also begin participating in the surveillance testing program “real soon,” Bullock said.

The state lab is continuing to prioritize tests for symptomatic individuals, their close contacts, front-line workers and those who live in communal care settings. Results are being returned in two to three days, Bullock said.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.