MSU Mask Wild

Students walk on the sidewalk in front of North Hedges Hall on Friday, Sept. 4, 2020.

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Of the 38 Montana State University students who have contracted coronavirus since Aug. 1, just six of those cases were active as of Friday, according to a Gallatin City-County Health Department report.

Matt Kelley, Gallatin County health officer, said the number of cases at the university is in line with what the health department expected. He said the health department is feeling “pretty good” about what it’s seeing at the university.

“But it’s important to note it’s early, and we’ve got a long way to go before Thanksgiving and classes get over with,” Kelley said.

The health department is working with the university to build contact tracing capacity. Kelley said the university is also working on its testing capacity and to make sure it has capacity for isolating and quarantining students when appropriate.

Tracy Ellig, spokesman for the university, said in an emailed statement that it has taken the cooperative efforts of student, faculty and staff to keep the numbers low. He said the campus has been working hard and that the university would continue to focus on how to slow the spread of the virus while providing a quality education.

“We’ve got a good start from which to continue our collective vigilance and efforts in the coming weeks and months,” Ellig said.

He said the university is not releasing information on quarantine and isolation housing numbers, noting that the county does not release that information either. He said the university needs students continued cooperation, “and if they feel like their privacy is not going to be protected that could work counter to efforts to slow the spread of the virus.”

“People are less likely to participate in public health if they feel they’ll be outed and potentially subject to stigmatization or worse, discrimination,” Ellig said.

On Friday, the county reported five new cases of COVID-19. There were 29 active cases and three hospitalizations. Three people in the county have died due to complications from the disease.

On Thursday, the county reported its rolling seven-day average was seven new cases per day.

Kelley said the low numbers could be a number of things. But he credits people in the county practicing social distancing, using face coverings, washing their hands and staying home when they’re feeling sick.

He said it’s important to think about the virus not just in terms of what’s happening at the university — most people who work or go to school there live in the city. Rather, Kelley said, it’s important to look at what’s happening in the county, noting that there’s been success in reducing the number of cases on a day-to-day basis.

Kelley said it’s important that the county continue doing what it’s doing to keep the seven-day average to single digits. At that level, he said, the county can better handle contact tracing.

“That really is at the level where we can get in there and feel like we’re disrupting transmission,” Kelley said.

He said people should be cautious about their holiday plans and keep things local and small, especially with kids going back to school.

Kelley pointed back to the Fourth of July and Memorial Day weekend, when cases shot up and the county was consistently adding up to 40 new cases of the virus daily. He said the county wasn’t containing the virus then, it was just tracking it, and warned he didn’t want to revert to that.

“I just want to stress that can all change really quick,” Kelley said.

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Freddy Monares can be reached at or at 406-582-2630.