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Big Sky to implement new surveillance testing program

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A new community-wide surveillance testing program will begin in Big Sky on Dec. 7. During the first week, 1,000 tests will be made available to the community to gather a baseline of data. PHOTO COURTESY OF MUFID MAJNUN ON UNSPLASH

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – A new COVID-19 surveillance testing program will officially launch in Big Sky on Dec. 7.

In the midst of a spike in cases in Big Sky and greater Gallatin County, and on the heels of Big Sky Resort opening for the season, stakeholders pointed to the importance of making efforts to keep the community healthy.

Tests will be free and self-administered, and made available to the Big Sky School District, individual community members, small businesses, healthcare and public safety employees, and large employers, according to a Nov. 25 press release from Big Sky Relief.

The 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.

Big Sky Relief is a partnership between BSRAD, Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, Moonlight Community Foundation, and Spanish Peaks Community Foundation, formed in March of 2020 to support COVID-19 relief efforts in Big Sky.

“The program will be adaptable to meet the ever-evolving impacts of the pandemic,” said Ciara Wolfe, committee chair of Big Sky Relief and V.P. of philanthropy for the Yellowstone Club Community Foundation, in the press release. The YCCF is part of the collaborative that organized the program and is also helping to fund it. “Partners have been and will continue to be committed to provide the support this community needs for the duration of this pandemic and through unexpected challenges yet to come,” she said.

Of the $4.5 million commitment to fund the testing program in Big Sky, 50 percent is funded by private employers who desire to go above and beyond their existing allocation from public dollars, according to Danny Bierschwale, executive director of BSRAD. The philanthropic community in Big Sky will contribute 25 percent of the 4.5 million and the last 25 percent comes from public funds, Bierschwale told EBS in a Nov. 25 interview.

“From the start of the pandemic, our community has come together to provide financial, behavioral, and health resources for those in need and we are honored to play a role,” said Matt Kidd, managing director of CrossHarbor Capital, the largest financial backer of the community testing effort, in the statement.“We are committed to providing the resources our community needs to weather the pandemic, however long that takes.”

Big Sky Resort is another large employer in the community that is supporting the community testing program and paying extra to test its employees beyond the capacity of public funds.

“Big Sky Resort is investing in weekly surveillance testing for both symptomatic and asymptomatic employees beginning in early December,” said Troy Nedved, general manager of Big Sky Resort. “These efforts will help our team isolate any potential outbreaks and alleviate pressure on community testing capacity. We are prioritizing testing for employees whose roles include exposure to guests at the resort … Surveillance testing is one of the key tools we need to control infection rates and keep our employees safe and our resort open.” 

Bozeman Health is also a partner in the collaborative effort. The organization is already offering symptomatic testing at the Big Sky Health Bozeman Medical Center and will also oversee clinical elements of the testing program, as well as provide support for contact tracing.

“Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached southwest Montana, Bozeman Health has worked diligently to help keep our staff, employees, and community safe and healthy through multiple infection prevention measures,” Bozeman Health President and CEO John Hill said in the statement. “We’re proud to be a trusted partner in this project to help curb the spread of COVID-19 within Gallatin and Madison Counties.”

According to Bierschwale, Big Sky is unique in that we are the only place in Montana implementing a program like this. As a community that relies on income from tourism, Big Sky had to be innovative in the ways that we keep our community safe and healthy, Bierschwale said. Big Sky Resort will have an average of 6,000 visits a day this winter, according to Bierschwale and the new surveillance testing will help to ensure the health of residents as well as the economic health of the community.

All components of the testing program have been designed in close collaboration with Big Sky Relief, Bozeman Health, county and state officials, and other local partners, and will be administered by this consortium, the press release said.

During the first week of the program, 1,000 tests will be made available to the community in the hopes of gathering a baseline of data. After the first week, 450 tests will be available every week for community members.

The testing starts in December and will continue through the end of the ski season.

The pickup location for tests is yet to be determined, but those being tested can drop off test kits at a mobile lab that will be located in the Big Sky County Water and Sewer District parking lot.

The lab will be provided by the organization LetsGetChecked, a private health insights company contracted by BSRAD, that will provide lower nasal-swab kits and serve as the on-site lab, processing the test results in 24 hours or less, the press release said.

A main concern when BSRAD was considering contracts for labs was how to supplement the existing capacity of Montana, according to Bierschwale. The mobile lab stationed in Big Sky will have two polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, testing machines used for PCR tests, also known as molecular tests, which are considered the gold standard of tests, Bierschwale said.

The donation of mail-in testing kits to BSSD kicked off the surveillance testing program at the school, according to Bierschwale, and BSSD will continue testing students as part of the program. That testing is being funded through the Big Sky Relief fund.

“We have been focused like a laser on providing a safe and healthy learning environment for our students, teachers, support and administrative staff,” Dr. Dustin Shipman, BSSD superintendent said in the statement. “This widespread testing effort will be an important tool in helping us continue to keep those in the school district healthy and safe.”

The plan is adaptable, and the community partners will continue adjusting based on the needs of the community, Wolfe said.

While Bierschwale and Wolfe say the surveillance testing program will be a useful tool to help keep the Big Sky community healthy and the resort open, they said everyone must still exercise caution.

The surveillance testing program is in place to help flatten the curve and stop the spread of COVID-19, but it’s still important to continue wearing masks, maintain social distancing and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, they said.

Tests will be available on Monday, Dec. 7 from 12 to 7 pm and on Tuesday, Dec. 8 from 8 am to 3 pm at the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky office.

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