By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – For the first time in its six weeks of operating, the Big Sky Surveillance Testing Program ran out of tests on Jan. 13. Don’t worry, that is actually a good thing, according to the Big Sky Resort Area District, it means that participation in the program is up and the entire supply of 450 tests for the week of Jan. 11-15 was distributed.
Each week, there are 450 free tests available on a first-come-first-served basis for Big Sky community members, Big Sky School District, small businesses, and healthcare and public safety employees. Another aspect of the testing program is the opportunity for larger businesses to pay extra, beyond the capacity of public funds, to test their employees.
The $4.5 million surveillance testing program is made possible through the efforts of Big Sky Relief partners including the Big Sky philanthropic community, and Big Sky Resort Area District, as well as community employers, and Visit Big Sky.
The testing program is intended to test asymptomatic individuals frequently through the winter in an effort to keep the Big Sky community open and safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 50 percent of COVID-19 transmission is through people who are not experiencing symptoms.
“Surveillance testing is the systematic testing of a community to identify asymptomatic individuals, isolate and quarantine positive contacts, and then contact trace those positive individuals,” said Daniel Bierschwale, executive director of BSRAD in a Dec. 17 interview. “It’s about frequency of testing and ensuring that as many people as possible are participating which gives us a good understanding of what the spread is.”
In its fifth week of operation, the Big Sky Surveillance Testing Program moved locations and is now housed in the old American Bank Building located at 1700 Lone Mountain Trail.
Moving forward, all tests can be picked up at the drive through window during the hours listed on bigskyrelief.org and they can be dropped off 24/7 at the drive through box or in the foyer of the Big Sky Chamber/Visit Big Sky Office.
Tests are picked up from both locations and delivered to the lab twice a day at 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. If you drop your test off on the weekend, it will not be received by the lab until Monday morning. The current turnaround time for results from the lab is estimated to be 24 hours from receipt of an individual’s sample.
When dropping off a test, all that is necessary to return is the biohazard bag containing your sample. The box and shipping bag are not needed.
It is important that individuals experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 do not visit the drive-through and instead contact the Bozeman Health COVID-19 hotline at 406-414-2619.
As of press time on Jan. 13, 17,574 cumulative tests have been administered through Jan. 8, resulting in a 2.2 percent positivity rate for the Big Sky community. According to the World Health Organization, a test positivity rate below 5 percent is criteria for re-opening businesses while a rate above 10 percent is cause for concern and may mean more testing is necessary.
The surveillance testing program is an important resource to help keep Big Sky open through the winter season. Small businesses are welcome to pick up ten free tests a week to test their employees and are highly encouraged to do so by Big Sky Relief and its partners.
“It’s an absolutely amazing resource we have access to, I encourage anyone and everyone that’s interested to participate,” said Ciara Wolfe, committee chair of Big Sky Relief and V.P. of philanthropy for the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation. “It’s really allowing our community to capture any of the cases from asymptomatic individuals that have tested and allow them to isolate and prevent that spread. [The testing program] is in turn, allowing businesses to stay open, and kids get to go back to school, and a lot of the things that are still moving forward.”
Thus far, over 70 small businesses in Big Sky have participated in the testing program.
One of these businesses, Blue Buddha Sushi, has firsthand experience with how helpful the surveillance testing program can be to aid in making the hard decisions.
Troy “Twist” Thompson made the call to close Blude Buddha Sushi on Tuesday, Jan. 5 after he, and a few of his staff members tested positive for COVID-19. Thompson was able to take advantage of the free testing program to test his staff and ultimately make the informed choice to close the restaurant and quarantine.
Thompson said that it’s been a hard time for his staff with housing issues and concerns over COVID-19. He expressed the hope that he will be able to tap into tax incentives that will allow him to pay those on his staff who tested positive during their quarantine periods.
After being closed for ten days, the plan, according to Thompson, is to reopen the restaurant on Jan. 15.
When asked about how he made the hard decision to close, Thompson explained that “it is not really a decision of finances, it’s a decision of public safety and health. In the long run, it’s just the right move to make.”
For the most up-to-date information on the testing program, visit the Big Sky Relief Testing Dashboard.