COVID-19 Sample Collection

A Bozeman Health employee dons a mask and a protective face shield at a drive-through COVID-19 testing site Thursday.

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State and local health officials plan to see more cases of the novel coronavirus as Montana moves toward reopening some businesses next week. But they said after a month under a stay-at-home order, Montana has earned the chance to begin easing restrictions.

Public Health Officer Matt Kelley said in a press conference Friday that people following social distancing guidelines put Gallatin County’s number of new cases of COVID-19 in decline. He said that effort was a sacrifice for shuttered businesses and people who found themselves suddenly unemployed.

In that time, the health department also increased its ability to investigate infections and send medical protective equipment to some facilities that need it. Kelley said testing for the disease has also increased.

With all of that combined, Kelley said the health department decided to stand behind Gov. Steve Bullock’s decision to begin reopening businesses and head toward what Kelley called a “new normal.”

But he said the work to get to that will be difficult and “there is risk involved” with “sporadic outbreaks.”

“The virus has not changed, it remains dangerous and widespread,” Kelley said.

Gallatin County has maintained the highest number of coronavirus cases in the state, with 146 out of Montana’s 444 total as of Friday. Kelley said 143 of the county’s COVID-19 patients have recovered. There were no new COVID-19 cases in Gallatin County on Friday.

Kelley called the state’s situation a “balancing act” to ensure coronavirus cases don’t overwhelm systems but also to help the economy — stalled in the state’s efforts to scale back COVID-19 — begin to recover.

The health department will continue to monitor the area’s cases, rate of COVID-19 infection and virus-related hospitalizations to see if restrictions will need to be restored. Kelley said if fewer than 5% of people tested in the county have the illness “that’s a good thing.”

He cautioned people who are more vulnerable to a serious illness with COVID-19 to continue to stay home. That includes those who are older than 65 and people with asthma, diabetes or high blood pressure among others.

People still need to stay home if they’re sick, avoid gatherings of more than 10 and wear cloth face masks when it’s not possible to stay more than 6 feet away from someone they don’t live with, he said.

“We are still in the middle of this pandemic,” Kelley said.

The state of Montana has some of the fewest known cases of the novel coronavirus infections in the country. But health officials have said there are cases missed in the state’s overall tally.

Public health experts have said that risk will be present until there is a vaccine for the disease.

The first phase of the state’s reopening plan begins Sunday and starts with lifting a stay-at-home order for individuals. On Sunday, churches can gather with limited crowds and some shops can open Monday. As of May 4th, restaurants and bars can seat customers once again. Schools could decide the same week whether to bring students back.

Some businesses like gyms and large gathering spots including theaters will have to wait for the next stage of the plan, which has no timeline yet.

Kelley said he’s more concerned for some businesses like bars and restaurants, and keeping a distance is impossible for places like tattoo parlors. But Kelley said it felt important to align with the state’s plan for lifting closures, saying he’d rather spend the time working with businesses than fighting about which restrictions to ease at a local level.

Kelley called the governor’s plan responsible and said if he thought it was a bad idea, he wouldn’t move ahead with it.

Two weeks ago, Bozeman Health projected that cases of the novel coronavirus in Gallatin, Park and Madison counties would spike starting April 27.

Dr. Mark Williams, Bozeman Health chief physician officer, said Friday recent case numbers indicate that won’t happen. Like Kelley, he said he expects to see more people sick with the illness, but whether that becomes a large spike depends on how people act.

“Social distancing should just become the norm for the next year until we have a vaccine,” Williams said, citing people avoiding crowds and staying home when they’re sick. “Those are the sort of things I hope people really take to heart and it just becomes their way of doing things.”

Williams said he believes that state officials will revert to more restrictions if Montana begins to see a “disturbing” increase in cases. In the meantime, he said the hospital and other health systems in Montana remain prepared for a surge they hope never comes.

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Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.