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As the number of coronavirus cases grows, Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley said Thursday that the health department will continue to monitor the virus and work with the state to determine if additional restrictions are necessary.

He said no specific local rules are being discussed.

“If there were an easy solution, we would have implemented it by now,” he said. “These are complex decisions that involve a lot of people and require a lot of consideration because there are significant side effects on businesses, the economy and the community.”

Kelley’s comments come a day after Gov. Steve Bullock announced that his office is coordinating with officials in nine “hotspot” counties — including Gallatin County — to decide if local rules are needed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Even though the nine counties are of concern, Kelley said they can’t be considered alone.

“I’m concerned that if we just do something in Gallatin County, there won’t be an impact,” he said. “What happens elsewhere affects us, so I am glad to see that we are thinking about a statewide strategy, but I would also like to see more of a national approach.”

Younger people have contributed significantly to the recent increase in cases in Gallatin County. They also have more close contacts than those who are older, indicating they are gathering in larger groups.

“This is a big problem, but there is no simple solution,” Kelley said.

Restrictions that might seem to disrupt this pattern, such as closing bars, might be ineffective because young people could find other places to gather, he said.

Instead of closing businesses, the health department is working with bars to ensure they follow state and local guidelines for social distancing, sanitation and mask-wearing. The health department is also visiting businesses to monitor compliance.

The state implemented a mask mandate two weeks ago, and last week, the county enacted its own, slightly more stringent mask requirement. Kelley said it is too soon to know whether the restriction has helped limit the spread of the virus.

“Ultimately, it will be a combination of things that will slow the spread of the virus,” Kelley said. “We hope that mask-wearing coupled with people taking this seriously by social distancing and other precautionary actions will reduce our case numbers.”

On Thursday, Gallatin County reported 16 new cases. There are now 68 active cases with four hospitalizations. The county has had 841 total cases with 771 recoveries and two deaths.

The state announced 138 new cases on Thursday to bring the total number of active cases to 1,519 with 69 hospitalizations. The state has had a total of 3,814 cases with 2,240 recoveries and 55 deaths.

Given the rising number of cases, Gallatin County is expanding its contract tracing efforts. The health department is working to hire additional contact tracers and is implementing new software to increase efficiency, Kelley said.

Even with the rise in cases, contact tracers continue to be able to reach those who have tested positive within 24 hours of receiving their test results, Kelley said.

If Gallatin County can no longer manage new cases, the state has offered assistance.

Due to a nationwide testing backlog, return times for tests have increased, which has made it difficult to slow the spread of the virus, Kelley said.

Return times reached four to six days in mid-July, a significant jump from the one-to-two-day return times in May and June. However, the turnaround time has declined since mid-July and could decrease even more once Montana State University begins processing tests, which will likely happen in the coming week.

“This gives us hope,” Kelley said.

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