Downtown Masks

Patrons walk through downtown, past a Montana state flag, on Wednesday afternoon, July 22, 2020.

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Gov. Steve Bullock announced Wednesday that Montana State University will begin processing COVID-19 tests, up to 500 per day, starting next week, to help overcome the backlog of testing in the state.

The state is also finalizing a partnership with a North Carolina facility, which is set to process at least 1,000 tests per day.

The partnerships are intended to fill the gap left by Quest Diagnostics, the private company that had been processing Montana tests collected at surveillance testing events but became overwhelmed. Bullock announced last week that Quest won’t be able to process Montana tests for several weeks.

Prior to that announcement, testing at Quest had what Bullock called “unacceptable” delays, taking upwards of 10 days in some cases.

“We don’t want to get back to a point where it’s taking weeks for folks to receive back their test results, as has been the case,” the governor said during a Wednesday press conference. “It’s in the best interests of our state that we continue to increase our testing capacity to get our hands around this virus ... We can meet the needs that we have in Montana with these two solutions.”

MSU’s lab will be processing mostly asymptomatic tests, Bullock said.

MSU President Waded Cruzado said at the press conference that MSU is the right choice for this partnership for two major reasons: the right equipment and the right people.

“For decades, we have been building our capacity,” she said. “Our researchers have poured their enthusiasm, their creativity and their energy into making this a reality.”

Gallatin County is one of several hotspots in Montana for COVID-19 cases. The Gallatin City-County Health Department announced 23 new cases on Wednesday, bringing the cumulative total to 673. Out of that number, 75 are active cases, five are in the hospital, and one person has died from COVID-19.

The department stated that there is “widespread community transmission” of the virus across Gallatin County.

Montana has had more than 2,800 people test positive for COVID-19, and just over 1,200 are currently known to be infected. The number of infections is thought to be much higher because many people have not been tested.

A Yellowstone County man in his 60s died at his home on Tuesday, the county health department said. A Sweet Grass County man in his 80s also died, the county health department said Tuesday. He had been hospitalized.

Montana has confirmed 1,797 cases of COVID-19 in the first three weeks of July, compared with 1,016 from mid-March through the end of June. The governor instituted a mask mandate on July 15 for counties where more than three people are known to be currently infected with the coronavirus. It applied to half of Montana’s 56 counties on Wednesday.

Some of the most recent cases of COVID-19 have involved large gatherings, such as weddings, where proper precautions weren’t taken, while a cluster that started with a college sports team led to 20 cases among team members and their friends, Bullock said. Other cases have spread when people have gone to work while sick or didn’t follow quarantine or isolation directions from county health officials, he said.

“These decisions can have long-reaching impacts and effects,” Bullock said, urging people to wear masks, stay home when you’re sick and practice social distancing and good hygiene.

The Gallatin County Board of Health’s meeting on a county-wide mask mandate, originally slated to happen last week, was postponed after a crowd of over 100 people refused to listen to the meeting from another room, violating the statewide restriction on gatherings of more than 50 people.

The meeting was postponed again until this Friday after Bullock issued the statewide mask order.

At this Friday’s virtual meeting, the board is slated to vote on two items: a county mask rule and an extension of a rule to keep those who have been told to quarantine at home until they are no longer at risk of spreading COVID-19.

The proposed mask rule states that those who refuse to wear a mask could be charged with a misdemeanor, which, if convicted, could carry a fine of between $10 and $500 and up to 90 days in jail.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Melissa Loveridge can be reached at mloveridge@dailychronicle.com or at (406) 582-2651.