Masks Downtown

Longtime friends Emily Jeske and Maggie Kleinhans pass by a mask-wearing mannequin as they leave Evergreen Clothing on Thursday afternoon, July 30, 2020, in downtown Bozeman.

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Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley said Monday he’s encouraged to see that the number of new coronavirus cases each day is dropping but cautioned the trend could change when schools reopen in the coming weeks.

The seven-day average of new daily cases has declined from its height of about 28 in mid-July to 11 on Sunday. The rate of tests that are positive has also been decreasing, which, Kelley said, indicates the drop in new daily cases cannot be explained by an increase in testing.

Kelley attributed the reduction in new cases, in part, to people’s adherence to public safety measures including social distancing, regular hand washing and mask wearing.

The reduction in new cases has made it easier for the health department to follow up with those who have tested positive and to reach those who might have been exposed to the virus.

The turnaround time for test results has also declined.

In July, it generally took five to seven days from the time people were tested to when the health department received results, which made it difficult to trace new cases, Kelley said. Since then, the turnaround time has declined to one to two days, which makes it easier to quickly isolate and quarantine those with COVID-19 or those who may have been exposed.

He added that the drop in the number of new cases is especially important with the reopening of schools.

“With schools starting, everything is subject to change,” Kelley said.

The Bozeman School Board, which oversees the county’s largest school district, was set to vote on a reopening plan Monday night. The Belgrade School District, the county’s second largest, has decided to use regular in-person instruction five days a week. Other smaller districts in Gallatin County are in varying stages of deciding what approach to take this fall.

Kelley said regardless of the plan schools choose, they should be prepared to alter course depending on how the virus spreads in the coming months.

The health department is also working to hire staff to work exclusively on COVID-19 as it pertains to K-12 schools and will seek reimbursement from the state for those positions.

“It’s a challenge, but we’re up for it,” Kelley said.

Montana State University classes resume Monday. The university is not quarantining or testing students as they return in order to conserve resources. However, the Montana University System announced a $20 million plan last week that includes setting aside dormitory space for students to isolate and quarantine in and hiring contact tracers who will focus on MSU cases but who will work with the health department.

Kelley said he is concerned there might not be adequate space for isolation and quarantine, particularly for students living off-campus who may be unable to do so at home.

Montana has surpassed 5,000 cases of the virus, with a total of 5,017. The state has had 75 deaths.

The state Department of Public Health and Human Services reported 1,529 active cases on Monday with 80 hospitalizations.

Gallatin County has consistently been among the counties with the highest total and most active cases in Montana. As of Monday, Gallatin County had 39 active cases with no hospitalizations. The county has had a total of 962 cases with 920 recoveries and three deaths.

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Perrin Stein can be reached at pstein@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2648.