Masks Campus

Pedestrians and traffic converge at the Aasheim Gate on Monday, July 27, 2020, on Montana State campus. 

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Twelve people associated with Montana State University have contracted coronavirus since the university started moving students in last week.

Eight of those cases are active, county health officer Matt Kelley said. The Gallatin City-County Health Department is working with the university to manage those cases.

“With the size of the university, we knew we were going to get cases and we’re not shocked that we’re getting cases come out of students and staff at MSU,” Kelley said.

Asked if he was concerned that the university would cause an uptick in cases, Kelley said he wants to be careful not to point fingers at anyone.

“We have concerns about everybody who breathes air potentially spreading the virus,” he said.

MSU estimated roughly 3,000 students would move in to dorms starting Aug. 10. Students were given two-hour windows throughout the week to move in, and only two additional people were allowed to help students inside each dorm at a time.

Tracy Ellig, spokesman for MSU, said he didn’t know if the cases were students or faculty, noting that employees aren’t required to tell their employers if they’ve contracted the virus. He said he’d have to defer to the health department on the infected persons relationship with the university.

Ellig said the university is working with the health department on managing new cases. He estimated the university had set aside “a couple hundred” rooms for people infected with the disease.

“We have housing set aside in which we could put students in, either in isolation or quarantine,” Ellig said.

He said the university is also working to hire up to five contact tracers who would be dedicated to the campus population. Ellig said the university was able to hire the employees with federal money Gov. Steve Bullock doled out to the university system.

He said the university is also working to open a facility where students can get nasal swabs like a drive-up testing site.

“Those aren’t open this week, but we plan to have them open next week,” Ellig said.

On Thursday, the county health department said there were 10 new coronavirus cases in Gallatin County, bringing the cumulative total to 1,025. There were 27 active cases in the county and no one was in the hospital because of the disease.

The rolling average of the past seven days has held steady just below six new cases daily, a decrease from a spike in mid-July when the county was averaging nearly 28.

Kelley said the numbers are moving in the right direction.

Another good sign, he said, was that the percentage of tests coming back positive has fallen. Kelley said the last time he checked the percentage was around 6%, and that any time the percentage is 10% or more it likely means infected people are not getting counted.

“We’d like to see that stay below 5% or maybe even get down a little bit further than that,” he said.

Kelley said he suspects the mask mandate, from the governor and county, has helped. However, he said, it’s hard to tell because the county was on a downward trajectory for daily new case counts around the same time that those mandates were issued.

“I think it helps, it’s a part of the puzzle, but it’s not the whole puzzle,” he said.

Kelley said a lot is changing right now. MSU is back in session. Students in high school and younger are going back to school. Winter — when people will be inside and together more often — is coming.

All those things could lead to the situation here changing quickly, Kelley said, noting that daily new cases spiked and stayed high for a couple weeks after July Fourth. He said the county has to be prepared for that to happen again.

“I’m hopeful that we’re able to keep cases down and keep this trajectory,” Kelley said, “but we’re preparing that we may have more cases.”

This story has been updated to state the cumulative total of coronavirus cases in Gallatin County was 1,025 on Thursday.

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