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Amid declining COVID-19 cases and lower demand for tests, the health department is closing its drive-through testing site at the fairgrounds and will focus on distributing free at-home testing kits.

At-home test kits will be available to pick up, one per person, at specific locations throughout the county, the Gallatin City-County Health Department announced in a press release. Availability of the at-home testing kits are limited and are being supplied by the state Department of Public Health and Human Services, said Lori Christenson, Gallatin City-County Health Officer, during a virtual press conference.

Christenson said winter weather, staffing shortages and lower demand led to the health department’s pivot from drive-through testing to supplying at-home kits.

Beginning on Monday, tests will be available during regular business hours at several locations throughout the county including the health department, Belgrade Library, Three Rivers Clinic in Three Forks, Manhattan Library and West Yellowstone Social Services.

Additional testing locations can be found online at healthygallatin.com. The tests are meant for people who have difficulty accessing COVID-19 tests, whether it’s because of geographic or financial barriers, Christenson said.

“We want to make these tests available to try and reduce those barriers,” she said.

Bozeman Health will still continue doing COVID-19 tests at Deaconess Hospital and Big Sky Medical Center, and Montana State University regularly holds testing for students.

Overall, Gallatin County is continuing a downward trend in both COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

This week’s 26% decrease in the seven-day rolling average is the fifth consecutive week that the county has seen waning case counts.

The seven-day rolling average of cases per 100,000 residents was 20.1 cases, down from 27.3 last week, according to the health department’s weekly COVID-19 report.

The county’s percent positive rate — which health officials use to monitor the levels of community transmission in the county and indicates if enough testing is being done — declined from 7.8% last week to 6.3%.

Nationwide, COVID-19 cases have been on the rise with both the omicron and delta variants widely circulating in some states.

The omicron variant, which has been present in the U.S. for several weeks now, is more transmissible than even the delta variant, said Dr. Kerrie Emerick, a pathologist at Bozeman Health.

No cases of the omicron variant have yet been detected in Montana, according to DPHHS.

“Once it does hit Montana, I except our COVID rates will increase,” Emerick said.

Getting vaccinated is still the best way to protect against COVID-19 and its variants, Emerick said.

Christenson said the health department is planning and preparing for the possibility of an increase in cases but said the county is in a good place with declining cases.

“As a community we’re well posed with having the access we do to vaccines, and we’ll continue to stress the importance of being vaccinated and getting your booster,” Christenson said.

As of Friday, Gallatin County had 146 active cases, compared to 206 last week and 316 two weeks ago.

Kallie Kujawa, lead incident COVID-19 commander for Bozeman Health, said there were eight COVID-19 patients at Deaconess Hospital.

The health department announced Wednesday the county’s 104th death. A woman in her 60s died in a hospital the week of Nov. 28, the health department received her death certificate attributing her death to COVID-19 on Tuesday.

Statewide, case counts have also been declining. As of Friday, Montana had 1,997 active cases. To date, 2,877 Montanans have died of complications related to COVID-19. On Friday, 139 people were in a hospital for COVID-19 complications.

About 52% of Montana’s are fully vaccinated. Of the 110,900 eligible residents in Gallatin County — everyone 5 years or older — about 59% were fully vaccinated.

Gallatin County has the fourth highest vaccination rate of counties in Montana, ranking behind Missoula, Deer Lodge and Silver Bow counties.

Vaccination rates in children and young adults still continue to be lower when compared to older adults. People aged 18 to 29 are about 54% fully vaccinated while children aged 12 to 17 are 44% fully vaccinated.

Children aged 5 to 11, who have been eligible to receive a Pfizer vaccine since early November, have the lowest rate of vaccination.

About 16% are considered fully vaccinated, while 25% have received a first dose.

At Deaconess Hospital, about 3,500 vaccines have been administered to 5- to 11-year-olds.

“There are about 1,500 fully vaccinated kiddos in that age range, which is phenomenal,” Kujawa said.

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Juliana Sukut can be reached at 582-2630 or jsukut@dailychronicle.com

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