Masks Downtown

A masked man walks past Soroptmist Park on Friday, Jan. 15, 2021, in downtown Bozeman.

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As Montana State University students returned to classes this week, novel coronavirus cases are remaining at a significant level in Gallatin County.

The 7-day rolling average was 71 cases per 100,000 residents as of Thursday, an increase of 8% from last week. Though Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley said an “evening out” of cases recently has allowed the county’s contact tracers to be more effective and taken some COVID-related pressure off Bozeman Health, the case numbers are still notable.

“When you’re seeing an average of 71 cases a day, that’s significant,” Kelley said. “There was a time during this pandemic … (when) that would have been pretty unbelievable and it’s become more of a normal thing.”

Though the health department reported 118 new COVID-19 cases on Friday — a higher number than recent daily case totals — Kelley said the number itself is not cause for alarm.

“I try not to get too worked up about one day alone,” Kelley said. “It’s concerning to have 100 cases a day, but I think it’s important that we don’t overreact to one single day.”

According to the weekly report, there have been 67 cases related to MSU since the New Year, and a number of active COVID-19 cases at K-12 schools in the county.

There were eight active cases at Anderson School as of Thursday, six at Meadowlark School and a handful at a slew of other schools, including Bozeman, Lone Peak and Belgrade high schools.

With the addition of some data from surveillance testing at Big Sky, Kelley said the positivity rate decreased from over 11% to about 8.4%. Without the data from Big Sky, Kelley said the positivity rate would be closer to 14%.

Including data from Big Sky surveillance testing gives a more “complete picture” Kelley said, but it’s important to understand the complexity of the data.

“When you do count all those (surveillance tests) we’re seeing a higher number of negative tests,” Kelley said. “A bit of a concern I have is that … surveillance testing is happening in a fairly specific and limited geographic area. It’s not spread around the whole county.”

Testing turnaround times remain low, Kelley said.

According to the weekly report, most people received results within two days of being tested. Quicker turnaround times help contact tracing and quarantining efforts, Kelley said.

The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital is much lower than it was during a surge of cases in mid-November, Kelley said. The health department’s daily update on Friday reported 13 COVID-19 hospitalizations.

Still, Kelley said winter normally brings an increase in hospitalizations in a normal year, which could impact the hospital’s ability to handle COVID-19 cases.

This week, the hospital reported to the department that it was being “pushed” by an increase in general hospitalizations, Kelley said.

“If they’re in that situation at Bozeman Health, at the hospital, and we have a surge of COVID on top of it that sends a high number of people with COVID-19 into critical care or even just the general census of the hospital,” Kelley said, “that makes their job all that much harder and puts all that much more pressure on overall health care resources.”

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.