MSU Wild

Students rotate between classes at lunch time on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2020, on the Montana State University campus.

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The number of Montana State University students in quarantine and isolation housing is increasing, but university officials are confident they can finish out the semester with in-person learning.

With COVID-19 cases increasing throughout Gallatin County, the university saw a similar increase, reporting its highest week of new cases last week with 212 cases. It was a 41% increase from the previous week.

“While we are at a higher capacity than we’ve been before in the semester, we feel we have the capacity to finish off the semester,” said Tracy Ellig, MSU spokesman.

He estimated the university was creeping towards 70% capacity in its quarantine and isolation housing but added the numbers can change quickly. He said the total number of quarantine and isolation beds on campus is between 200 and 300.

“The capacity can change quite rapidly both because we have new people coming in and in a given day we can have a dozen students cycle out,” he said.

Students in one of the Quad residences on campus has been quarantined, Ellig said. The Quads are suite-style residence halls that can house a maximum of 25 students.

During Friday’s health board meeting, health officer Matt Kelley said the quarantine and isolation capacity at MSU was “being pushed to the limit” and the university was working to find more quarantine housing.

Kelley has repeatedly said the county is not seeing evidence that educational settings are driving a surge in COVID-19 cases but cases at MSU and grade schools are a reflection of what’s happening in the county.

He previously said the health department analyzed the number of cases at MSU and they were similar to the overall growth rate for that age group in the county.

“There is no evidence that we are seeing classroom transmission,” Ellig said. “Transmission is happening outside of the classroom in social settings.”

While the university moved students from one dorm into other buildings on-campus to make additional quarantine space earlier in the semester, Ellig said the university has not had to do a similar move since.

Ellig said there was a difference between how the university houses quarantined students and students in isolation, which affects how many beds they have available. Students are quarantined because they were identified as a close contact of someone who tested positive, but don’t have symptoms themselves and so aren’t tested. The university is only testing symptomatic students.

Ellig said quarantined students are typically housed one person to a unit to ensure they don’t get infected from another student in quarantine. Students who test positive for COVID-19 can be put together in an isolation suite, he said.

“We’ve definitely seen more students seek out testing, which is actually great. That’s what we want. We want students to be tested,” he said.

He said the university is regularly seeing more than 150 tests a day and is able to keep up with the testing demands. He said MSU did see that number spike to 200 tests on one day but it was not consistently that high.

Since Aug. 1, there have been 725 positive cases connected with MSU, according to the Gallatin City-County Health Department. As of Nov. 6, there were 128 active cases connected to the university, a 23% increase from the previous week.

The university did decide to cancel its in-person commencement and move it to a virtual event. The ceremony will be Nov. 22.

Ellig said the decision was not a reflection of anything the university was seeing in the classroom but was the “wisest, safest thing to do both for our students, their guests and the community.”

The fall semester is scheduled to end on Nov. 25.

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Liz Weber can be reached at lweber@dailychronicle.com or 582-2633.

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