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Bullock announces MSU testing partnership, adopting local measures

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By Bella Butler

HELENA – At a press conference on July 29, Gov. Steve Bullock played to Montanan’s pathos in order to communicate the continued severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Caty Gondeiro, a 23-year-old Helena resident, shared her experience with COVID-19 after receiving a positive test on July 7. Gondeiro, who described herself as young and healthy, didn’t think she was at risk for contracting the virus until she did.

“The symptoms are very real, this is nothing to be taken lightly,” she said, stating that three weeks later, she still struggles with shortness of breath and lingering neurological symptoms.

“I think it’s really important for people in the 20-29 age group to understand that we’re driving the spread of this…” Gondeiro said.

Three quarters of cases in Gallatin County are among people under 40, and 58 percent of cases are among people under 30, a trend that is replicated in other hot spot counties like Missoula and Yellowstone.

“Young adults are certainly more likely to socialize in larger group sizes and we know that large gatherings continue to play a role in the rise in cases,” Bullock said.

Bullock identified nine of Montana’s 56 counties as hot spots following reports that the counties cases comprised 80 percent of the state’s total case count in June and July. These counties are Flathead; Lake, Missoula, Lewis and Clark, Madison, Gallatin, Bighorn, Cascade and Yellowstone counties.

“At this time we’re carefully reviewing the patterns we’re seeing in these nine counties. I know the capacity to get our hands on this virus in some of these communities is actually getting difficult,” Bullock said. “We’ll be working with local public health officers in the upcoming days to determine if additional commonsense measures can or should be taken to both deploy aadditional resources and/or steps to limit the spread.”

Bullock said that some communities may have to take special measures to accommodate unique circumstances not present in other parts of that state.

Bullock referenced a recent discussion in the U.S. Senate that explored the option of allocating more federal money to states to be distributed to local and state government, which the governor said would allow for more of Montana’s currently possessed COVID-19 support money to be used to help businesses, nonprofits, healthcare providers and others.

Bullock emphasized that given all of the unknowns that lie ahead, holding onto a portion of the originally allocated $1.25 billion is a way to take care of Montana in the long term.

“It’s absolutely critical that we spend this money responsibly and are able to adapt to any future changes or challenges,” he said.

During a July 22 press conference, Bullock shared that three months after gaining access to the $1.25 billion in COVID-19 support from the federal government, $800 million has been allocated, with $100 million being distributed through various types of grants spread across all 56 Montana counties. The relief fund is intended to last through the end of the year.

“Because we’ve held back some money, we’ve retained our ability to be flexible and react quickly when new needs are identified,” Bullock said.

In the way of testing, Bullock announced a new partnership between the state and Montana State University at the July 22 press conference after pausing a relationship with Quest Diagnostics. The partnership will allow for Montana to ramp up testing once again, including COVID-19 surveillance testing for frontline health care personnel, essential workers and other groups, according to a press release that followed the conference. 

In the last four weeks, Bullock reported that 70,000 tests were administered in Montana, putting  the state in a good position to continue to work toward administering and processing 60,000 tests per month. MSU is currently working with the state lab to validate their machines and will have the capacity to process up to 500 tests per day using four qPCR devices as early as next week, according to Bullock. The university is also developing pooling methodology, which “combines a handful of surveillance tests into one testing run,” Bullock said, affording greater testing capacity, increasing the state’s capabilities three- to four-fold. The state will pay MSU $100 per test.

“I’m confident with MSU’s research enterprise and ingenuity. Montana will have much of its testing capacity done here in state at the university and through our state lab,” Bullock said before welcoming MSU President Waded Cruzado to the microphone.

“This is not just an issue of having the right equipment but of having the right people,” Cruzado said. “For decades, we have been building our capacity, and today, our state’s largest research institution and one of the most research-intensive universities in the region, Montana State has the necessary expertise among our students, faculty and staff to run this project and to assist our state.”

The governor also announced that the state recently finalized a contract with MAKO Medical in North Carolina, a reference lab that will process an anticipated 1,000 tests per day from Montana.

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