Mask Downtown

A customer turns around to ask a question at the Country Bookshelf on Wednesday in downtown Bozeman.

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As Republican Gov. Greg Gianforte lifted the statewide mask mandate Friday, Gallatin Health Officer Matt Kelley reiterated that the county’s face covering rule remains in effect.

“We understand that our epidemiology looks better than it did in November (and) we understand that the vaccine is rolling out,” Kelley said during a press call on Friday. “I want people to also understand there are still thousands of Montanans who remain vulnerable to this virus. They have to go into those public settings, and it’s a very simple act of courtesy that we can have for one another to wear those face coverings.”

Gianforte promised shortly after taking office in January that he would rescind the state’s mask requirement once businesses, nonprofits and other groups were protected from lawsuits related to COVID-19 and once a sufficient number of vulnerable Montanans had been vaccinated.

When Gianforte signed a liability protection bill into law on Wednesday, he said both criteria had been met and he would eliminate the mask mandate on Friday.

The state’s chief medical officer resigned on Thursday.

Dr. Greg Holzman, a leader in the state’s coronavirus response, will remain in his position until April 16. His resignation letter did not give a reason for his departure.

Gianforte’s lifting of the mask rule comes as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend mask-wearing to slow the spread of the virus.

“We will provide incentives to protect the health and safety of Montanans, and we will emphasize personal responsibility,” Gianforte said in a news release on Friday. “Since we’re not out of the woods yet, I will continue to wear a mask and encourage all Montanans to do the same to protect themselves, their loved ones, and their neighbors.”

Former Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock implemented the statewide mask mandate in July but limited it to counties with at least four active COVID-19 cases. He then expanded it in November to cover the entire state as case totals reached record levels.

The number of COVID-19 cases has since declined across Montana and in Gallatin County.

However, this week, for the first time in weeks, Gallatin County experienced a slight uptick in cases.

The seven-day rolling average of new cases was 32.7 per 100,000 residents, up from 30.1 cases last week.

While the county’s positivity rate increased slightly, growing from 5.3% to 5.7%, the rate remained at a level that indicates enough testing is being done to track the disease’s spread.

Deaths also increased this week, reaching 52 since the pandemic began. The county announced Thursday that a man in his 90s died last week at a long-term care facility.

However, hospitalizations have remained in the single digits for weeks, and Bozeman Health continues to have capacity to treat COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital and Big Sky Medical Center.

Kelley said the increase in some metrics is small enough not to be concerning.

“I think we need to keep watching it and we need people to continue to be vigilant because this could still go one way or the other,” he said. “We’re still waiting to see what’s going to happen when — not if — the variant strains of the virus arrive, if they haven’t arrived already. We’re still in a situation where most people don’t have access to the vaccine and may not for months to come.”

As of Friday, about 15% of Montanans had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, slightly above the national average of 11%.

In Gallatin County, the health department is coordinating vaccine distribution with several local organizations, including Bozeman Health and Montana State University.

The Gallatin City-County Health Department will hold its second public vaccination clinic on Thursday at the fairgrounds in Bozeman for people in Phase 1A — health care workers, first responders and residents and staff of long-term care facilities — and in Phase 1B — adults 70 years or older, those with specific underlying health conditions and people of color.

Sign-ups for the 500 appointment slots opened at noon on Friday and filled in about 10 minutes. Demand for vaccines continues to outpace supply, causing frustration, but the health department has said it will offer additional appointments when it receives more doses.

Next week, the health department is also organizing a vaccine clinic for patients of Bozeman Creek Family Health, Bozeman Clinic and Community Health Partners, as well as for people connected to the Human Resource Development Council and Bozeman Senior Center.

“We’re still in a situation where we don’t have enough vaccine to go around,” Kelley said. “That’s not unusual. That’s what’s happening all over the country.”

MSU and Bozeman Health have also been conducting their own vaccine clinic by reaching out directly to people who are associated with their organizations and who meet the criteria for Phase 1B to schedule appointments.

This week, Bozeman Health gave 1,170 first doses at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital and 200 first doses in Big Sky, said Incident Command Lead Kallie Kujawa. The health care system has about 30,000 patients in Phase 1B, so it will take weeks before they all have access to the vaccine.

Last Saturday, MSU gave first doses to 807 eligible students, faculty and staff and plans to provide second doses to that group on Feb. 27, said spokesperson Tracy Ellig.

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