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Gallatin County talks vaccines, new virus variant, incoming governor

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By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – On Thursday, Dec. 31, health officer for the Gallatin City-County Health Department Matt Kelley provided an update on COVID-19 in the county, including the arrival of the new variant of the virus to the U.S., vaccine distribution and the county department’s plans for working with incoming Gov. Greg Gianforte.

As of Dec. 31, Gallatin County recorded 88 new cases of COVID-19, 407 active cases and nine hospitalizations. They also confirmed an additional virus-related death—a man in his 90s who died in a hospital the week of Dec. 13—bringing the total deaths in Gallatin County to 38.

Although the seven-day average has been holding steady around 49 cases per day, there was a slight uptick in cases on Dec. 29 due to a reporting delay from the Big Sky surveillance testing program. Despite this hiccup, Kelley says communication between the surveillance testing program and the county has been smooth—because Big Sky Relief funds the contact tracers needed, it hasn’t placed additional strain on the county health department.

“What we’re seeing in the surveillance numbers are pretty reasonable positivity rates, we’re seeing positivity rates well under 5 percent,” Kelley said. “That’s good news, so I think the fact that that testing is happening, that it’s sustaining itself, it isn’t sapping the rest of the county’s testing system, those are the things that we were concerned about.”

Gallatin County is expecting between 500-1,000 COVID-19 vaccine doses to arrive next week and is in Phase 1A of the state’s vaccine distribution plan, which instructs allocation to frontline workers and residents of assisted living facilities. Kelley stressed that it will still be “a pretty long wait,” ahead—late winter or early spring—before the vaccine is available to the general public, a timeline that depends heavily on supply.

The next phase, 1B, makes several new groups of people eligible for the vaccine, including people 75 or older, those in congregate care, first responders, teachers and childcare workers, grocery store workers, critical infrastructure workers and American Indians and others at high risk due to environmental or socio-economic factors.

“We’re trying to vaccinate a world right now and that’s a huge challenge,” Kelley said. “And so I just want people to understand we need patience, we need people to understand that we need them to bear down on some of the things that have helped save lives, quite frankly, over the course of the past few months: maintaining that social distancing, continuing to wear that face covering, staying home when you’re sick, washing you hands frequently.”

The current available vaccines are expected to work on the new COVID-19 variant, discovered in Colorado on Tuesday, and although it has shown to spread much faster, the variant strain does not appear to be more deadly or produce more severe symptoms. It still has the potential, however, to place pressure on already-strained healthcare systems.

Kelley also addressed the state’s incoming governor, Greg Gianforte, who will take office Jan. 4. Although he has not yet released his COVID-19 plan, he has signaled that he may do away with the current mask mandate issued by Gov. Steve Bullock on July 15.

“As we see a new governor take office I think it’s important that we all respect his responsibility and his authority to govern and address the pandemic, and at the local level we intend to respect him and his work and we’ll do everything we can to work with the new administration,” Kelley said.

Kelley says that the governor has the authority to modify statewide directives, but not the emergency rules passed by the local board of health—masks will still be required despite any actions by Gianforte and the current restrictions placed on Gallatin County businesses would still remain in effect regardless of Gianforte’s actions once he takes office. Although the expirations for those health rules are approaching, Kelley says he will recommend that the board extend them in the face of Montana State University students returning, the appearance of the new variant and ski season just underway.

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