MSU Masks

Two Montana State University students walk under the Aasheim Gate on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020.

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The COVID-19 cases in Gallatin County continue to rise, straining contact tracing efforts and pushing the county into the highest risk of transmission in schools based on federal guidelines.

From Tuesday to Thursday, the health department had 175 new cases making it difficult for its contact tracers to limit the spread, health officials said.

“The fire is burning and we’re trying to contain it, and we’re not going to be able to contain it with contact tracing alone,” said Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley during a press conference on Friday.

The health department has also begun reporting three metrics specific to schools and based on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations. Kelley said they were providing those metrics to help paint a fuller picture for local school districts.

“Our metrics is really looking at can we keep up with contact tracing,” Kelley said of the difference between the health department metrics and the CDC’s school-specific metrics. “CDC is looking at if you have this many cases, the risk of transmission in schools is pretty high.”

The CDC school metrics paint Gallatin County in the highest risk of transmission in the schools for two out of the three metrics. The county is in the second highest risk category for the other metric.

“We’re seeing for the last 14 days, 549 new cases per 100,000 residents. It puts us way past the point of highest risk of transmission in schools,” Kelley said of one of the metrics, which qualifies anything over 200 new cases in a two-week period as the highest risk.

Although Gallatin County’s virus spread qualifies it in the highest transmission risk in schools for two out of the three CDC metrics, Kelley said the health department has not had discussions on rolling back in-person learning for any of the school districts. He said the cases in the schools are a reflection of the cases in the county.

“If we see a situation that’s dangerous or a school is really driving cases in the community than we might have that conversation, but we’re not seeing that right now,” Kelley said.

The number of schools in the county with active cases also increased from eight schools last week to 12 this week. Bozeman High School and Belgrade Middle School have the highest number of active cases with four and three cases, respectively. Lone Peak High School and Whittier School have two active cases. Chief Joseph Middle School, Gallatin High School, Gallatin Gateway School, Heck Elementary, Irving School, Manhattan High School, Morning Star School and Ridge View Elementary School all have one active case.

Kelley said while there were not a huge number of active cases in the schools, there is likely a significant number of staff and students in quarantine due to those cases.

There were 65 new cases connected to Montana State University reported this week for a total of 282 associated cases since Aug. 1, according to the health department’s weekly surveillance report. There was a 62% increase in active cases with the university for a total of 55 this week.

“What I’m seeing right now is they’re going through what the rest of the community is going through,” Kelley said. “We’re not seeing substantially more evidence of transmission at MSU than what we’re seeing in the community.”

He said the university’s isolation and quarantine housing capacity is still pretty good, and the health department is regularly communicating with MSU.

Kelley said it was important to note the health department was seeing cases throughout the county and in a variety of settings.

“We’re seeing household cases, workplace associated cases, cases from social events,” he said. “It’s just all over. We’re getting it coming in form all over the place.”

There were 44 new COVID-19 cases in the county on Friday. There have been five deaths from COVID-19 complications, with the most recent one reported on Thursday. There have been a total of 2,202 cases, with 271 of those confirmed active cases.

The seven-day rolling average of daily cases per 100,000 residents was 42.1 cases on Thursday, an increase of 16% from 36.3 cases on Oct. 8, according to the county’s weekly surveillance report.

The seven-day rolling average for the rate of positive cases was 10.9% on Thursday, a 33% increase from last week.

While cases in the county remain high, Kelley said the hospital capacity is one of the primary factors the health department is looking at when considering whether to recommend additional safety precautions or closures.

As of Friday, there were 10 hospitalizations in the county. The critical care beds at the Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital were 65% occupied, and the noncritical care beds were 58% capacity, as of Thursday.

Montana is among the states in Great Plains and northern Rockies region that has been seeing high rates of the virus in recent weeks.

“You can keep it out for a certain amount of time, like sandbags around the flood,” Kelley said of the virus. “But when the waters get high enough, the flood starts coming in and that’s what were seeing now.”

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.