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As Gallatin County continues to prepare for large-scale vaccine distribution, the rate of COVID-19 cases shows positive signs.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases in Gallatin County was 50.4 cases per 100,000 people as of Thursday, and the positivity rate was below 10%, an indicator that spread of COVID-19 is on the decline. Last week, the seven-day rolling average of cases reported on Jan. 14 was 33% higher, at 75.2 cases per 100,000 residents.

The numbers are encouraging, county health officer Matt Kelley said, but high case counts in other parts of the country and suspected new variants of the virus are still a concern.

“We need everybody to really understand (that) things can change quickly,” Kelley said, encouraging people to continue following health guidelines. “We still have a long way to go. We still have months of this ahead of us and we could see surges in the future.”

The health department recently started including results from surveillance testing in Big Sky in their weekly reports. The surveillance testing results brought down the positivity rate of COVID-19 tests, which was 6% on Thursday for the seven-day rolling average, a drop of 24% from the previous week.

Excluding the Big Sky data, Kelley said the positivity rate on Jan. 19 was 9.1%.

Health experts regard a positivity rate between 5% and 10% to be a cause for moderate concern, Kelley said, while a rate above 10% is considered to be a sign that the virus may be spreading too widely for testing to catch all the COVID-19 cases in the area.

Though the goal is a positivity rate under 5%, Kelley said the number is moving in the right direction.

“In November we were over 20% for a period of time and that is ... absolutely a sign of uncontrolled spread. We’re not there anymore,” Kelley said. “We’re not really particularly close to that, and that’s a good thing.”

The majority of test results are coming back in two days, according to the weekly surveillance report, and most contact tracing investigations are being started on the same day the result is shared.

New cases are still dominated by people in their 20s, according to the weekly report.

The report showed 47 new cases related to Montana State University in the past week, for a total of 116 since the New Year. Though it’s still early in the term, Kelley said the number is fairly stable.

The report also showed a number of active cases at county schools as of Thursday: Divine Mercy Academy reported eight active cases, while Belgrade Middle School and Bozeman High School reported three active cases each.

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