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Resort tax board considers testing plan, COVID-19 control

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By Bella Butler EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – At its July 8 open board meeting, the Big Sky Resort Area District board discussed a plan for what board chair Kevin Germain identified as key efforts to controlling COVID-19: testing, tracing and face masks.

A testing, tracing and surveillance plan drafted by BSRAD staff and board members initially proposed weekly, widespread testing in Big Sky.

“The original intention is to do some regular, ongoing testing that we are hoping to get in place this summer and continue on through the ski season,” Germain said. “And the concept is to test a certain percentage of our workforce and locals every week to look for any potential COVID outbreaks.”

The plan was created in coordination with Bozeman Health System Director of Clinical Practice and Emergency Operations Manager Birgen Knoff, and seeks to implement sentinel surveillance testing. This specific testing approach, according to the World Health Organization, “deliberately involves only a limited network of carefully selected reporting sites.” The WHO says that data collected from sentinel testing can be used to signal trends, identify outbreaks and monitor the burden of disease in a community.

“It’s a much more proactive testing program than is currently going on in Big Sky and our county … Up until the mass testing last week, it was only symptomatic individuals getting tested,” Germain said.

Through working on this plan, Germain said that a lack of clarity and commitment from the state on appropriate testing kits needed for the program as well as necessary funding resulted in a pivot. While unable to execute the full sentinel testing plan immediately, BSRAD, in partnership with Bozeman Health and the Gallatin City-County and Madison County health departments, organized one day of free mass surveillance testing for anyone who wanted it in Big Sky on July 1. Nearly 700 people were tested, and results are not yet available.

According to Germain, efforts to implement the sentinel testing program will continue. Having identified that the resource backup is rooted at the state level, BSRAD drafted a letter to Montana’s Congressional delegation requesting support in procuring more testing supplies. These included Panther testing kits, which are compatible with the analyzer located in Bozeman, and Cepheid testing kits, which are compatible with the analyzer located in Big Sky.  

The hope is that additional resources acquired by the state will trickle down to Gallatin County and Big Sky, allowing for localized test analyzing with quicker turnaround times. Results from mass testing like that which occurred in Big Sky on July 1 currently take 7-10 days to be released; by processing the tests using local analyzers, the wait time could be only a few days. 

The letter also requests assistance in attaining ventilators purchased in April by Big Sky Relief for the Bozeman Health Big Sky Medical Center. The letter references Big Sky’s significant economic contribution to the state of Montana, thanks to its tourist economy, and suggests that better testing control will support a healthier winter season, which will in turn fuel lodging tax revenue for all of Montana.

Bozeman Health is still fine tuning the sentinel testing plan, answering questions like what percent of the local workforce should be tested and how frequently. BSRAD Executive Director Daniel Bierschwale said that the increased testing ability would benefit all of southwest Montana and contact tracers, adding that the testing plan could be used as a template for other resort communities in the state.

The letter was signed by representatives from BSRAD; local health departments; Bozeman Health; the Big Sky Fire Department; Big Sky Resort; the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce; the Big Sky Community Organization; Yellowstone and Spanish Peaks Mountain clubs; and Moonlight Basin.

As for tracing, Germain said that in late June, when a cluster of COVID-19 cases was traced back to local bartender and social activity, Kelley contacted the Gallatin County Sheriff to enlist help in monitoring Big Sky bars. Sgt. Brandon Kelly in Big Sky said this entails informal observations of local bars, where officers focus on ensuring that Gov. Bullock’s Phase 2 requirements are being met. Kelly added that there is no enforcement piece on their part.

Big Sky Relief also supported a Big Sky Chamber of Commerce and Visit Big Sky effort to procure 50,000 face masks, sourced by Roxy’s Market, to distribute to local businesses willing to mandate or strongly suggest the use of face coverings. This initiative comes at a time where other surrounding communities’ businesses are taking similar pledges in lieu of state or county face mask mandates.

Bierschwale shared other Big Sky Relief updates with the board, including a crude current balance estimation of BSRAD dollars left in the fund, which is likely hovering above $200,000. BSRAD recently submitted a reimbursement request through state CARES Act programs for $634,000 that the district spent on COVID-19 relief services. The board has not yet received a response.

The board also discussed the possibility of purchasing one of the two units that BSRAD currently occupies in the RJS Tower in Town Center. Board members cited acquiring a valuable asset and potential savings as reasons to purchase the space, but do to some missing information, the board postponed the conversation until actual savings could be calculated.

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