COVID-19 Numbers

Sage Crawford and her mother, Kathleen Crawford, walk down Main Street wearing masks on Friday, Oct. 2, 2020, in Bozeman. Friday marked the largest one-day increase in COVID-19 cases for Gallatin County.

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There were 68 new cases of the novel coronavirus in Gallatin County reported Friday, marking a record jump in the number of daily case counts.

Previously, the highest one-day increase was 45 new cases, reported on July 23. According to a news release, there are 198 active cases and eight hospitalizations, which Gallatin City-County Health officer Matt Kelley said he believes is an all-time high. Four people have died from COVID-19 complications in Gallatin County, and there have been 1,577 total cases.

The number of COVID-19 cases has steadily risen in Gallatin County in recent weeks, with an increase of 54% in the 7-day rolling average of the number of daily cases per 100,000 residents from Sept. 24 to Oct. 1, according to the Gallatin City-County Health Department’s weekly surveillance report.

“We’re really seeing widespread transmission of the disease right now, maybe to a greater extent than we’ve seen any time during the pandemic,” Kelley said during a virtual press conference Friday. “We’re seeing them all over the county. From West Yellowstone up through Big Sky, Bozeman, Belgrade, Three Forks, you name it, we’re getting cases from it.”

According to the report, there were 43 new cases associated with Montana State University reported this week for a total of 157 associated cases since Aug. 1. Though Kelley said though the county is seeing a rapid rise in cases from people in the 20-30 age range, it isn’t all from Montana State students.

Beyond high case counts, contact tracers are seeing a significant number of close contacts reported for people in their 20s.

“We’re hearing a lot about parties, about gatherings that people are having,” Kelley said.

There is no one cause for the increase in cases, Kelley said, though the department did see a spike in people reporting COVID-19 symptoms in mid-September, indicating it may be partially related to Labor Day activities. The increase isn’t exactly surprising, Kelley said, as statewide case counts have risen, as have cases in neighboring states.

The state of Montana reported 360 new cases statewide on Friday.

“You’re seeing across the Great Plains, you’re seeing across the Rocky Mountain West a really significant number of cases, and where we had some success … that can only hold up for so long, when you’ve got cases, really high case counts all around you,” Kelley said.

The increase in cases is compounded by some cases that have an “impressive and substantial” number of close contacts, Kelley said, which challenges contact tracing efforts. Ideally, Kelley said they would be able to have one-on-one conversations with all close contacts, but that is not possible in a 24-hour period with the high case counts.

Contact tracing is more effective in the beginning of outbreaks, when there are a small number of cases, Kelley said.

“When you’re getting 65, 68 cases a day in a community this size, that seriously is indicating that we have a substantial number of cases that we’re probably not detecting,” Kelley said. “It’s kind of like hanging on for the ride right now rather than limiting it.”

Calling it a “civic duty,” Kelley urged those who are informed by the health department that they have been exposed to the virus to heed their instruction and quarantine. The department is working to connect those quarantining with services, like food or medicine deliveries or help filing for unemployment, Kelley said.

The seven-day rolling average for the rate of positive tests was 8.9% on Sept. 30, which is an increase from the positive test rate of 7% reported on Sept. 23. According to the weekly report, the World Health Organization recommends a positive test rate below 5% before reopening businesses.

One piece of good news is that test results are still coming back fairly quickly, Kelley said, with most returning results in a day or two, which helps kickstart contact tracing and get infected people isolated.

When asked about a potential return to business shutdown or stay-at-home orders, Kelley said reducing the spread of COVID-19 will take more than just orders from the health department. He urged people to wear face masks, social distance and avoid holding large gatherings.

Kelley said it is disappointing that masks have become a point of division.

“It’s very difficult right now when something as simple as masks causes people to protest outside of the health department. It becomes very difficult to think about going beyond that without real support from elected leaders of all stripes,” Kelley said. “It’s also really important that we attack this with unity and understanding rather than through division and acrimony. And right now with the environment that we’re in, it’s very difficult, that’s a tough thing to do as we’re running into an election and all these sorts of things.”

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