It took nearly two years for Jennifer Wells to start feeling healthy after contracting COVID-19.
Wells first became sick from the novel coronavirus in October 2020. After the initial illness almost sent her to the hospital, a series of confusing symptoms persisted.
Ongoing migraines, fatigue and other chronic conditions threw the otherwise healthy 37-year-old’s life into upheaval.
Throughout 2021, Wells went to doctors and specialists, taking test after test in an effort to understand the wide range of confusing symptoms.
Sunday marks the second anniversary of the first COVID-19 cases to arrive in Gallatin County, and the start of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many in Gallatin County have dealt with the loss of jobs or income, long-COVID, or grief from the death of a loved one.
The past two years have left an indelible impression on the Gallatin Valley as many look to the third year with hope tinged with uncertainty.
For Wells, the future is mixed with anticipation and fear, as she wonders if her post-COVID syndrome will permanently alter her health.
Studies estimate a third of people who have contracted COVID-19 subsequently deal with some level of long-haul syndrome. But for months Wells’ symptoms were a mystery to her and her doctors.
A few weeks after recovering from COVID-19, she started experiencing a series of new symptoms including brain fog, inflammation, fatigue, vertigo and nausea, heart palpitations and almost daily migraines.
She did MRIs, blood tests, heart tests, and her friend took her to the emergency room several times when Wells was stricken with crippling migraines.
“I just felt like I was crazy,” Wells said. “I felt like the doctors must think that I’m making this up.”
Her illness affected her life both at work and at home. Wells took Family and Medical Leave from her job at Montana State University.
She struggled to do everyday chores and tasks, and was often too tired to do weekend activities with her 10-year-old daughter, Lily. Pizza for dinner and extra time watching TV was often a necessity.
It was a change from her normally active and outdoorsy lifestyle.
“I wanted to give up, but I just kept thinking of her,” Wells said. “She needs a mom … I don’t know that I would have had the same mindset without her.”
Nearly nine months after contracting COVID-19, Wells finally turned a corner. She found a post-COVID recovery clinic in Great Falls — the only one in the state aimed specifically at treating long-haulers.
“It was the first time I didn’t feel like I was crazy or alone, I felt believed and it gave me hope and I got answers,” Wells said.
Doctors put her on oxygen — she had been going into hypoxia nearly every night — and prescribed medicine to help with her brain fog and memory loss.
It’s been slow, but the brain fog started clearing, her vertigo subsided and she started to feel better.
Now, three months into 2022, Wells said she’s starting to fully feel like her normal self again.
But her long-haul symptoms are a constant reminder of COVID-19 and she knows other long-haulers may have felt equally as lost and confused as her.
“It’s completely shifted the lens through which I see the world,” Wells said. “It’s been humbling to realize that.”
There have been more than 34,200 positive COVID-19 cases in Gallatin County. One hundred and sixteen people here have died of the disease.
But the virus has taken more than just life and health.
“We’ve really all experienced enormous losses due to COVID-19, whether that be a loss of a loved one, loss of jobs, time spent with family and other important ways of life,” Gallatin City-County Health Officer Lori Christenson said.
Christenson took the job as health officer in June 2021.
The COVID-19 vaccines were already rolling out, and at the time cases were down. But that didn’t make her first year as the county’s public health officer any easier.
“We faced a slightly different set of circumstances and different set of risks to weigh and outcomes to measure,” Christenson said. “I wouldn’t say it’s gotten easier. We’ve just learned to adapt and be more resilient in those times where there is ambiguity.”
Looking back at the year, Christenson lauds the county’s vaccination rate — 63% of the eligible population — and the wider access to COVID-19 tests across the county as a success.
But the year’s challenges, like COVID-19 cases, ebbed and flowed as new variants arose and taxed the local health care system.
“It was extremely challenging to flex to meet the demands and then flex down with the different spikes from delta and omicron,” said Kallie Kujawa, the Bozeman Health COVID-19 incident commander.
From an administrative standpoint, those spikes were hard. But for health care workers it was harder, she said.
“It’s like this re-traumatization that’s happening to our staff,” Kujawa said. “We can see it coming and then it would be the long hours again and it would be difficult.”
As the omicron wave has subsided and case counts remain low across the country, the CDC has rolled back guidance for mask use and other COVID-19 restrictions.
“Things are feeling a lot less hectic,” said Dr. Neil Ku, an epidemiologist at Billings Clinic.
But not even infectious disease experts like Ku can definitively say when the pandemic could end.
With the possibility of new variants and the still unknowns of the disease, COVID-19 could stick with us for a long time, he said.
But likely, Ku said, there will be a shift with COVID-19 to being more seasonal and predictable, similar to influenza.
The vaccines and other treatments and medications are putting us on the right track, Ku said.
“My main hope is that we can get to a point that we know that COVID-19 is not going to go away and learn to live with this,” Ku said. “Both economically and socially, and not have to resort to more drastic measures to prevent the spread of the disease.”
But when that will happen is unclear to Ku. For others, the transition is already happening.
Kujawa, with Bozeman Health, said the health care organization is already looking at ways to integrate COVID-19 into “normal operations.”
“We attempted that transition last year, but those spikes from delta and omicron had us waffling on whether we could move into normal operations,” Kujawa said “But at this point, we feel those transitions are happening really well. We feel like we’re moving in the right direction.”
As some prepare to transition away from the pandemic, others seek to solve community-wide issues exacerbated by the pandemic.
Perhaps, most prominently is the increasingly tight and expensive housing market.
“We’re just seeing greater and greater wealth gaps in our community,” said Erica Aytes Coyle, the executive director of Haven.
The median price for single family homes surged by 31% in 2021, and shot up about 66% since the pre-pandemic era.
Monthly rent increased 11% in 2021 from 2020.
As people get on the waitlist for Haven’s shelter and emergency housing, Coyle said she thinks the shifting housing market has made a lasting change in Gallatin County.
“Who would have expected that a pandemic would have actually increased the demand to this degree?” Joanna Harper, the president of the Gallatin Realtors Association asked at a recent presentation examining the county’s housing market.
The market was already strained in 2019, but the pandemic accelerated the crunch as prices skyrocketed and more and more people moved to the area.
A recent study conducted by the state’s Legislative Fiscal Division showed Gallatin County’s population grew by 5.4% in 2020. Since 2010, the population grew 30%.
With prices going higher, the social services net in Bozeman began to see a strain.
The Warming Center saw its busiest year ever, and other nonprofits that provide housing and food assistance also noted increasing demand.
Mandy St. Aubyn said calls to the Help Center went up 55% over the past two years. In 2021, calls to the help line were up 17% from 2019.
“In some ways 2021 felt a little bit more stable,” St. Aubyn said, but added other stressors aside from the pandemic were in the mix.
At Family Promise, a nonprofit serving families experiencing homelessness, the number of people using its programs and services increased by 685%.
“We knew that the community was growing and we knew there was going to be a huge need but we didn’t realize how fast that growth would be,” Christel Chvilicek, the director of Family Promise, recently told the Chronicle.
On an average week, five to 10 families are on the waitlist for emergency shelter, Chvilicek said.
With housing prices on track to continue climbing, community activists say work has to be done to correct the imbalance.
The pandemic accelerated Bozeman’s growing pains and highlighted other chronic issues, such as the affordable housing crisis, lack of daycare and unreliable public transportation, said Bozeman Chamber of Commerce CEO Daryl Schliem.
“It’ll take hard discussions between the business community and government elected officials on how do we solve this,” Schliem said.
Given the many, and layered, community crises, business in Bozeman last year was far from normal, but businesses generally fared well. Most had a better year than in 2019, Schliem said.
Similar to how healthcare workers have to learn to work with the persistent changes brought by COVID-19, businesses and Bozeman’s economy are having to adapt to issues exacerbated by the pandemic, like supply chain hurdles and inflation.
A lasting change to Bozeman’s business community, Schliem thinks, is the ability of businesses to accommodate workers who need to work from home and the number of remote workers in Bozeman.
To some residents, the Bozeman of March 2022 looks very different — and worse — than the city did prior to the pandemic.
The population has grown and will likely keep growing. New developments continue to pop up fast. And the low-key, unassuming nature of Bozeman longtime residents say they miss will probably never return.
For many, it’s a hard pill to swallow.
“I’m also seeing resentment towards tourists and newcomers,” Schliem said, adding that the sentiment has ramped in recent years.
For Dax Schieffer, the director of Voices of Montana Tourism, learning to deal with the influx of tourists in a sustainable way will be the key to Gallatin County’s success.
Tourists and newcomers aren’t going to go away.
“We owe it to ourselves to really be intentional as we’re marketing experiences to visitors about what is expected when they’re out on trails and in our rivers and playing in the mountains,” Schieffer said. “We want to make sure we’re protecting the integrity of the place of why we all love.”