Mask Wild

Masked shoppers walk down Main Street on Friday, Nov. 27, 2020, in downtown Bozeman.

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The coronavirus surge slowed this week for the first time in months, but Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley cautioned that the pandemic remains serious.

The seven-day rolling average of daily COVID-19 cases reached 117.7 per 100,000 residents on Wednesday, an 18% decline over the week prior, according to the health department’s weekly report, which was released Friday.

“You’re probably running into more people you know who have been diagnosed,” Kelley said in a press call on Wednesday. “It’s just spreading pretty rapidly in the community.”

The percent of tests coming back positive dropped to 16.8% this week, down from 24.5% last week. Even so, public health experts say the positivity rate is high enough that more testing is needed to avoid missing a significant number of cases, according to the weekly report.

The county’s testing system remains strained. It is taking about three days to return results — more than the ideal one or two days, according to the weekly report.

While the turnaround time is lower than it was earlier in the month when it took about four days to receive test results, it continues to be highly variable. The variability is likely because the tests of those who are symptomatic are prioritized and because several different health care providers and labs are collecting and processing tests.

The number of new COVID-19 cases at Montana State University declined this week, likely because students began leaving campus as the fall semester ended. There were 105 new COVID-19 cases, a 44% decline over the week prior. A total of 1,298 cases have been reported at MSU since Aug. 1.

As of Friday, 24 K-12 schools had a total of 50 cases.

Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital and Big Sky Medical Center, the county’s two hospitals, had more available beds on Friday than they had a week ago. This could be because the hospital has added beds in recent days to accommodate the increase in hospitalizations.

“We’ve had concern for a long time,” Kelley said, referring to the level of COVID-19 hospitalizations, which hit a high of 34 on Wednesday. “… I wouldn’t say that’s acute right now that concern, (but) it’s significant.”

Although some metrics show the surge tapering off, deaths have jumped significantly with six — or about one-third of the county total — reported this week.

“Public health in general has been expecting a pretty hard beginning of the winter for quite some time,” Kelley said. “That’s what gives me some pause about drawing too much confidence from the slight leveling off.”

In response to Kelley’s guidance and the Gallatin City-County Health Board’s orders, including the mask mandate and recent restrictions on businesses, about four people protested in front of Kelley’s home on Thursday and Friday.

Roger Roots, a perennial Libertarian candidate, and John Lamb, a Norris resident who lost his bid for state Senate this year, have documented their protests in videos on Facebook that have garnered thousands of views.

On Thursday, neighbors called the police on the protesters, who had a turkey on a leash and a small grill where they burned masks.

As they set up their signs on Friday morning, Roots and Lamb questioned the seriousness of the virus and claimed the government was overstepping its authority by enacting public health rules. They said they would remain in front of Kelley’s house until he resigned or reversed the rules.

Parked cars and sawhorses lined the street to block protesters.

A neighbor came out and said a residential area was an inappropriate place to protest. He suggested they go to the county courthouse or Law & Justice Center.

In a video Lamb posted on Facebook on Friday afternoon, he said Kelley’s wife had brought the protesters doughnuts.

When reached on Friday afternoon, Kelley said he could see three protesters outside his home.

Despite the protesters, he said he would continue to listen to public health experts and look at the local COVID-19 data to guide his decisions on how to keep Gallatin County healthy and safe.

“In public, the vast majority of people say they’re thankful for our work,” he said, adding, “I’m grateful they (the protesters) feel healthy enough and well enough to do this, but from where they’re sitting, they can see the hospital where, today, there are 25 people with COVID, and that’s what we’re working to avoid.”

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Perrin Stein can be reached at or at 582-2648.