In the first seven days of the new year, Gallatin County added nearly 1,000 new COVID-19 cases.
The seven-day rolling average of cases per 100,000 this week was 135.6, a 60% increase from the week before, according to the Gallatin City-County Health Department’s weekly surveillance report.
During a press conference Friday, Gallatin City-County Health Officer Lori Christenson said the amount of virus circulating around the county is higher than reported case counts. As of Friday, Gallatin County had 1,236 active cases.
Coming out of the holidays, and with the surge in cases, the health department has been behind in inputting data into the tracking system that reports cases.
"The reality is that there are likely a lot more cases circulating in the community,” Christenson said.
With the surge in cases, Gallatin County sits about 8 times higher than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's classification for “high transmission."
With that high transmission the health department, following CDC guidance, strongly recommends both vaccinated and unvaccinated people wear a mask in public.
The county’s percent positive rate — the percentage of people who test positive for the virus of all people tested — has also spiked.
As of Tuesday, the percent positivity rate was at 29.2%, up from 18% last week. The World Health Organization recommends a test positivity rate below 5% as a benchmark that adequate testing is being done.
Health officials also use the rate to monitor the levels of community transmission in the county.
“That positivity rate is really very indicative of the amount of disease we have in our community right now,” Christenson said.
In Gallatin County, about 61% of the eligible population — everyone over 5 years old — have been fully vaccinated. That’s above Montana’s vaccination rate of about 53%.
Despite a rise in cases, the county has yet to see a marked increase in hospitalizations. Kallie Kujawa, Bozeman Health’s lead COVID-19 incident commander, said the health care system was bracing for an increase in hospitalizations.
“We’re watching and waiting,” Kujawa said. “We don’t really know what will happen … but we are seeing those extreme spikes (in positive cases) in the community. So, we’re highly concerned.”
As of Friday, Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital had 17 COVID-19 patients. Four of 18 patients in the hospital’s critical care unit were COVID-19 positive. The ICU, which has 20 beds, was at 90% capacity, Kujawa said.
The hospital’s medical unit and surgical unit were at 97% and 89% capacity, respectively.
The health department on Wednesday also announced three more deaths due to complications from COVID-19.
All three deaths occurred the week of Dec. 12. A woman in her 40s and a man in his 60s both died at a county hospital, and a Gallatin County resident in her 50s died in a hospital out of state.
The three deaths bring the countywide total to 107. Sixty-eight of those deaths occurred in 2021.
Gallatin County is leading Montana’s surge in COVID-19 cases, accounting for a little over 20% of all active cases statewide. As of Friday, Montana added 1,161 new cases, for a total of 6,111 active cases.
The omicron variant, now sweeping the nation, has become the dominant strain actively circulating in Montana, surpassing the delta variant.
As of Jan. 4, there have been 84 confirmed cases of the omicron variant in Montana, according to a report from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. DPHHS checks a number of tests collected from across the state for specific variants.
Of 33 specimens sequenced the week of Dec. 25, 79% were omicron. The remaining were delta. The week prior, only 57% of specimens collected were omicron, marking a rise in the variant’s prevalence.
For Gallatin County, the number of breakthrough cases, where a fully vaccinated person contracts COVID-19, in the final week of December was about 50% of all cases, according to the weekly report.
Hospitalizations, while down overall from previous weeks, was also seeing a near equal split between the vaccinated and unvaccinated.
“What we are seeing nationally is that fully vaccinated individuals with breakthrough infections are less likely to develop serious illness than those who are unvaccinated,” Christenson said.