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A large increase in COVID-19 cases in Gallatin County — and more people seeking tests — has put a strain on the county’s testing infrastructure.

Health officials say, for now, there’s enough testing capacity to meet demand but that folks seeking a test should be patient.

As of Friday, Gallatin County had 1,236 active cases. That’s compared to 599 cases just a week ago.

At testing sites across Bozeman Health, wait times for a COVID-19 test this week have varied from little to no wait to up to two hours, said Kallie Kujawa, Bozeman Health’s lead COVID-19 incident commander, during a Friday press conference.

“We are just as concerned about our inability to decrease wait times as everyone else,” Kujawa said. “But the reality right now, with how much demand, there are going to be unpredictable short and long wait times.”

As cases continue to climb, so does demand for COVID-19 tests. Gallatin City-County Health Department tallied a little over 9,100 people were tested for the virus in the two weeks between Christmas Eve and Friday.

That’s not accounting for people who tested with at-home rapid tests who may not have reported results to the health department.

Bozeman Health ran over 4,000 tests alone the last week of December, said Dr. Kerrie Emerick, a pathologist from Bozeman Health.

Emerick said processing tests has been no issue at Bozeman Health. Bozeman Health has two high throughput analyzers, one in Bozeman and one in Big Sky that can quickly turn tests around.

“Our biggest challenge and the bottleneck is really staffing,” Emerick said.

Bozeman Health has been understaffed in the labs that process the tests, but mainly at testing sites themselves.

“Much like the rest of the community, we have staff who are in isolation or in quarantine, so that’s a challenge. As well as our inability to recruit,” Kujawa said.

Kujawa did not know exactly how many Bozeman Health employees were out sick or quarantining. Bozeman Health had nearly 400 open jobs listed on its website.

Gallatin City-County Health Department has also struggled to provide at-home rapid tests among an uptick in demand. Beginning in mid-December, the county has worked to provide at-home test kits to pick up at several locations across the county, including in Belgrade, Three Forks and West Yellowstone.

As of Friday, the county had distributed over 1,000 at-home test kits, said Lori Christenson, public health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department. All the home test kits, aside from some left in West Yellowstone, have been distributed, she said.

The county gets those tests through the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Christenson said the county has requested more kits but was told early this week that the state is on backorder for supplies.

When asked if the county planned to expand more testing, like reopening drive-thru testing at the fairgrounds, Christenson reiterated the health department’s pivot to providing at-home testing kits.

The county is also still prioritizing its contact tracing. For now, the health department is conducting case investigations for people who are 65 years or older, 18 years or younger, students at Montana State University or other higher education institutions, for health care workers, the immunocompromised and for those living or working in congregate settings.

Christenson said people who test positive or were exposed to COVID-19 should follow guidance from the health department and from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

To address the high demand for testing, Kujawa said Bozeman Health is expanding hours for its drive-in testing at Deaconess Hospital Lot H to weekdays from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Bozeman Health has multiple other testing locations including:

  • Deaconess Hospital building three outpatient lab, open weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • b2 UrgentCare, open daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • Belgrade Clinic Drive-up, open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Belgrade Clinic + UrgentCare, open daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.
  • b2 MicroCare, open daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Patients with no COVID-19 symptoms may go to any of the locations listed above or to:

  • Bozeman Health N. 19th Outpatient Lab, open weekdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.
  • Deaconess Hospital building five, open Monday through Thursday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m., Fridays from 7 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., and weekends from 8 a.m. to noon

More information on testing availability around the county may be found online at healthygallatin.org or by calling the county hotline at 406-548-0123.

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

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