By Bella Butler
BIG SKY – In January, Twist Thompson, owner of Blue Buddha Sushi in Big Sky, swabbed his nose with a test provided free through the Big Sky COVID-19 Surveillance Testing Program. He dropped his sample off and it was delivered to a mobile lab located next to the water and sewer building.
Within a day, he got a call. His test had come back positive.
The local business owner quickly contacted his employees to have them tested through the program. Days before anyone else had symptoms, the asymptomatic tests revealed a handful of other positives among the Blue Buddha crew, allowing the restaurant to close before further transmission could occur.
“It just really let us, in a time where there’s so much uncertainty, act with some sort of rapid speed,” Thompson said.
On April 9, the Big Sky Winter COVID-19 Surveillance Testing Program concluded what many have called a successful effort. The program provided free asymptomatic COVID-19 tests to community members, small businesses, large employers, healthcare and public safety employees and the Big Sky School District. After processing more than 50,000 tests since it began on Dec. 7, the program yielded 913 positive cases.
The testing effort was the product of a multidirectional partnership: Fifty percent of funding was provided by private enterprises, 25 percent came from area resort tax and the remaining quarter was funded by philanthropic foundations including the Spanish Peaks, Moonlight Basin and Yellowstone Club community foundations.
“This was quite a pioneering effort,” said Kevin Germain, board chair for the Big Sky Resort Area District. In addition to obtaining the funding, the partners worked with testing company LetsGetChecked to bring a mobile lab to Big Sky so tests could be processed on-site in under 24 hours and the results could be communicated directly to state and county jurisdictions.
Germain added that it was important for the group to work with state and Gallatin County officials to add to testing resources rather than deplete existing services.
“We appreciate the collaboration with those who organized the Big Sky surveillance effort and their willingness to run the program in a way that did not impact testing in the rest of the county,” Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley wrote in a statement to EBS.
Studies report that more than 50 percent of COVID-19 transmission came from asymptomatic people. The testing program led to the detection of more than 900 asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 and Bozeman Health provided contact tracing to ensure that people were properly isolated. “That had direct results on stopping the spread,” Germain said.
In addition to cutting off transmission, Germain believes the testing program had broader community effects.
“I think it gave our community a peace of mind that they knew that people were being tested and that we were staying on top of it,” he said.
The Big Sky School District, which is currently offering 100-percent in-person learning, used the surveillance testing to perform weekly testing.
“It’s been instrumental because it gives us real-time data to work with,” said BSSD Superintendent Dustin Shipman. The school district will continue to test those without symptoms using a mail-in option.
Providing asymptomatic testing for small businesses played a key role in keeping shop doors open during a busy winter season, some local owners said.
Thompson also owns a Blue Buddha in Page, Arizona, a town near Lake Powell comparable to the size of Big Sky. With the exception of the February outbreak, his Big Sky location was able to remain open throughout most of the winter season.
Meanwhile, in Page, Thompson said employees struggled to find tests, sometimes driving three to four hours to get them. The Arizona location was lost about five months of in-house dining over the last year.
Larger community employers, including Big Sky Resort, Yellowstone Club and Lone Mountain Land Company, also took advantage of the program to keep chairlifts spinning and operations moving forward.
“Surveillance testing is one of the key tools that the resort and community implemented to control infection rates, keeping our employees safe and our resort open,” Big Sky Resort General Manager Troy Nedved wrote in a statement to EBS. “We’re grateful for the unique partnership that brought surveillance testing to the Big Sky community this winter.” Big Sky Resort will end its ski season on April 18 after successfully remaining open all winter.
Though the mobile LetsGetChecked lab has rolled out of town, the remaining tests will continue to be distributed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays and Tuesdays at the drive-thru located at 1700 Lone Mountain Trail. Tests can then be dropped off at the same location using the overnight deposit box. People submitting samples should expect results within 24-72 hours.
During a recent installment of EBS’s Big Sky Town Hall Series, BSRAD Executive Director Daniel Bierschwale said that now, a year after the pandemic struck Big Sky, there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
“Shots are going into arms, we’re seeing our case load here in Big Sky and also throughout the state of Montana continue to drop,” he said during the April 2 interview. “I’d say there’s definitely an aura of hope about the community right now as we’re beginning to turn a corner.”