Masks

A pedestrian passes a sign asking people to wear masks posted outside of the Ellen Theatre in Bozeman in November.

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The omicron variant has been detected in Gallatin County, marking the first case of the new strain of the coronavirus to be identified in Montana, the state Department of Health and Human Services announced Monday.

Two people in their 30s who had traveled from South Africa, where the omicron variant first appeared, tested positive for variant of concern, the state health department confirmed Monday.

The Gallatin County residents were experiencing mild symptoms and were fully vaccinated, according to DPHHS. Neither had any close contacts in the county, said Magdalena Scott, DPHHS communicable diseases epidemiology section supervisor.

The Gallatin City-County Health Department advised both of the people to self isolate upon their arrival in Gallatin County about a week ago and to get tested if they being experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, Scott said.

Gallatin City-County Public Health Officer Lori Christenson said “it wouldn’t be surprising” if there were additional cases of the omicron variant detected in Gallatin County, but that they might not be related to the cases confirmed by the state this week.

“There’s a lot we don’t know yet,” she said. “We just have to keep using the tools we have and be diligent about using them.”

Testing for coronavirus variants is happening statewide at four locations. One of those is at Montana State University, which detected one of the Gallatin County omicron variant infections, said Todd Harwell, the DPHHS administrator of public health and safety.

“We’ve got pretty good coverage in terms of testing specimens across the state,” Harwell said.

Acting State Medical Officer Maggie Cook-Shimanek reiterated that people should adhere to public health precautions repeated throughout the pandemic, including getting vaccinated, wearing masks, washing hands and avoiding crowded indoor spaces.

It’s unclear if, how or when the omicron variant may spread in the state, Cook-Shimanek said.

“It really depends on what we have as far as vaccine and booster coverage,” she said. “It remains to be seen, but we should do everything we can to protect ourselves.”

Montana is the 46th state to have a confirmed omicron variant case, according to DPHHS.

A deployment of the Montana National Guard to support hospitals and the state health department — which came in response to a surge in cases caused by the delta variant — ended last week, Harwell said. It is unclear if the National Guard may be deployed again, he said.

“The National Guard and (Montana Department of Emergency Services) have always stepped up for the state and hospitals as need,” Harwell said.

The World Health Organization first identified the omicron variant in November. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say it is more contagious than the coronavirus and its many mutations, including the delta variant, which has been the dominant form of the virus spreading through Montana since at least August.

It is unclear if the omicron variant causes more severe illness than the delta variant or other strains of the coronavirus, according to the CDC. Vaccines are “expected” to protect against severe illness, hospitalization and death in people infected with the omicron variant, but breakthrough infections in people fully vaccinated are “likely to occur.”

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Bret Hauff is the Chronicle’s city editor. He can be reached at bhauff@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2647.

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