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The Big Sky Relief Fund has given a grant to the Gallatin City-County Health Department to track the coronavirus in Big Sky by using the community’s wastewater.

The fund, which provides money to those impacted by the pandemic, donated about $80,000 for testing wastewater from the Big Sky wastewater treatment plant, according to a Tuesday news release.

The Walk Lab at Montana State University will collect samples weekly and determine the concentration of the virus in the wastewater. The first samples will be collected Thursday.

The data from the Walk Lab will be used to monitor the level of the virus in Big Sky and to determine if the level increases or decreases over time.

“Monitoring for virus load in wastewater provides us with one more way to understand how the virus is or is not spreading in the community,” said Matt Kelley, health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department. “This data will help us make decisions about how to navigate through the pandemic.”

The money from the Big Sky Relief Fund will cover the cost of monitoring through December. The health department will then decide whether to continue the work into next year, Kelley said.

Wastewater surveillance is one of several metrics — including the number of cases of COVID-19, the number of active hospitalizations and the number of deaths — that Gallatin County is using to understand how the gradual reopening is progressing and when restrictions can be loosened or must be tightened.

“The project is certainly a tool in the toolkit to support data-driven decision-making,” said Daniel Bierschwale, executive director of the Big Sky Resort Tax Board, which distributes the area’s 1% sales tax and helped created the Big Sky Relief Fund.

Seth Walk, who runs the Walk Lab, and the Gallatin City-County Health Department are hoping to expand the wastewater monitoring efforts, possibly adding sample sites in Belgrade or West Yellowstone.

To add more sites, Kelley said wastewater treatment plants will need to obtain and install autosamplers, which collect water every hour for 24 hours to create a composite sample for the Walk Lab to analyze.

The Gallatin County Commission has indicated it may pay for the additional wastewater monitoring, Kelley said.

Blake Wiedenheft, an associate professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at MSU, has been collecting and analyzing samples from the Bozeman wastewater treatment plant since March 30. His preliminary findings indicate the concentration of the virus has generally declined over time.

The number of new confirmed cases in Gallatin County has also fallen in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, the county reported three active cases of COVID-19 as well as 145 recoveries and one death from the disease.

Statewide, there were 20 active cases on Tuesday. The state also had 425 recoveries and 16 deaths, bringing Montana’s total to 461 cases.

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