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Health department warns of rising transmission, advises against holiday gatherings

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By Bella Butler EBS STAFF

BOZEMAN – Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley addressed the county at a virtual press conference July 1 with suggested social limitations entering the holiday weekend in the wake of a recent local spike in cases.

“We expected…that we would see additional cases as more people came together and as more people came into the state and more people came into Gallatin County, and that’s what happened,” Kelley said, speaking to the rise in cases following phased reopening and relaxed social limitations.

As of July 1 at 12 p.m., the health department was managing 49 active lab confirmed cases and one hospitalization. Since June 26, six new cases have been diagnosed in Big Sky, five in West Yellowstone and 38 in the Gallatin Valley. The health department has also identified 180 individuals as “close contacts,” which the Center for Disease Control and Prevention defines as anyone who has been within 6 feet of a known case for more than 15 minutes.

Kelley said that community transmission is occurring in Gallatin County, meaning that the health department is detecting cases for which there is no obvious source of infection and no out of state travel. He added that transmission is also occurring at homesteadings, workplaces and social events. A number of active cases are known to have spent time at restaurants, bars and parties.

“The challenge ahead of us is highlighted by what’s been happening in Big Sky in recent weeks,” Kelley said. “Prior to last week we were finding cases within a social group of young people who frequented bars and parties together. More recently this week we found cases in multiple workplace settings, including among people who work in construction and the tourism industry and in other settings.”

Kelley said that the six active cases in Big Sky are only “part of the story.” Many close contacts of these confirmed cases have been asked to quarantine to limit further community spread.

 “The bottom line is simple,” Kelley said. “The disease is spreading readily and widely in Gallatin County, and as we head into this holiday weekend, we face the potential for accelerated spread if people gather in large groups where the virus can spread more readily.”

Kelley suggested that people avoid gatherings this weekend, and advised those that find themselves in large crowds to remove themselves as quickly as possible in order to protect themselves and those around them.

For those choosing to still gather in groups to celebrate, Kelley asked that groups remain small, hosts allow for social distancing and the avoidance of shared food and utensils.

Having noted that the median age of cases in May and June was about 28 compared to March, when it was 44, Kelley specifically addressed young people, saying that “A pandemic is not a time for large frat parties and crowded bars.”

Kelley said that decisions requiring masks throughout the county have not been made, and while “all things are on the table” for the health board, greater efforts are being put toward educating people so that they will choose to wear masks on their own.

No firm threshold has been identified for when a call would be made to move backward in phased reopening.

Free COVID-19 nasal swab testing was available in Big Sky all day on July 1, and while Kelley said he is very interested to see test results at a population level, the health department is first and foremost focused on allocating resources toward testing known close contacts of cases and people displaying symptoms.

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