Masks Downtown

Gerry Beck, a volunteer with the League of Women Voters, rocks her "Vote" mask on Friday, Oct. 30, 2020, in downtown Bozeman. Beck said people should vote because, "it's your right. It's your duty."

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As Gallatin County reached another record high for new coronavirus cases and recorded its eighth death on Friday, health officer Matt Kelley said officials can’t keep up with contact tracing and that implementing more restrictions could be considered.

Kelley said no decision has been made about restrictions, but that “it’s something that the community needs to look at soon” if the county can’t control the transmission of COVID-19.

He said he’s concerned about what’s happening in places near Bozeman and Montana, where hospitals are struggling to keep up with a surge of COVID-19 and are relying on neighboring hospitals. Kelley said he doesn’t want to wait until the county gets to that point, but he also doesn’t want to make the impression that the health department can solve the problem by passing rules.

“If that happens, it’ll be a part of the solution,” he said. “But it won’t be enough if we can’t get the community to really take this seriously and really stay home when they can and keep physical distance from others.”

Kelley said that Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital and Big Sky Medical Center were at 80% capacity for critical care beds and 90% capacity for non-critical care beds. He said hospital officials have told him that those numbers fluctuate daily and that they feel they can continue to serve COVID and non-COVID patients.

The Gallatin City-County Health Department also announced Friday that a woman in her 90s died at her home in a long-term care facility last week because of complications from the disease. She is the eighth person in the county to die because of the virus, and the second virus-related death announced this week.

Montana set a statewide record Friday, too, with 1,063 new cases, according to a report from the state’s coronavirus task force. Statewide, 27 deaths were reported Friday.

Gallatin County’s health department reported 138 new cases of COVID-19. The previous high in the county was recorded on Oct. 24, when 114 cases were reported.

There have been 364 COVID-19 deaths in Montana since March.

Kelley said the county is seeing “rapid, widespread transmission of the disease” and that “we’re getting enough cases now that we’re not keeping up with contact tracing.” He said health officials would spend less time interviewing infected people and focus on identifying close contacts who work in schools, health care and nursing homes.

“It’s impossible for us to do contact tracing for all close contacts for all cases,” Kelley said.

A health department report showed that 132 people associated with Montana State University had contracted the virus in the past week, bringing the total to 513 cases associated with the university. Of those cases, 409 people have recovered and 104 remain active cases.

The report showed that because of the new cases over the past two weeks schools are in the “highest risk of transmission” category as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There were 987 new cases per 100,000 persons in the county during a 14-day period that ended on Thursday. The county’s test positivity rate for the two weeks ending on Oct. 26 was 13.4%, which indicates “a significant number of cases in the community are not being detected.”

Kelley said what’s happening at schools from kindergarten to the university level is in line with what the rest of the county is seeing. He said he’s told school officials that more kids in schools makes spread more likely and that the health department is unable to keep up with contact tracing.

Elementary schools in Bozeman are scheduled to return to five days of in-person learning on Monday.

School boards make the decision to do in-person learning, and Kelley said he respects that. He said it doesn’t appear that schools are driving the pandemic.

“That’s where the health department would really be more likely to step in,” Kelley said.

Going into the holiday weekend, Kelley asked that people not go to parties, cancel events that are not essential and stay at home or be in outdoor settings where they are not around others. He said he’s advising against any gatherings with 25 or more people but wasn’t doing that with an order or a rule.

“Those sorts of events drive transmission,” Kelley said. “They put people at risk, especially people who are older and have health conditions. And even if you don’t fall into one of those categories, being at those events helps drive transmission in a way that puts people in peril.”

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Freddy Monares can be reached at fmonares@dailychronicle.com or at 406-582-2630.