By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – As COVID-19 cases in Gallatin County climb, the Big Sky Resort Area District approved the use of $400,000 in resort tax funds to support efforts to combat COVID-19 in the Big Sky community.
At an Oct. 13 meeting the board unanimously voted to fund a $150,000 winter COVID-19 testing program as well as to fulfill an emergency request from the Bozeman Health Big Sky Medical Center in the amount of $250,000 for a new testing machine and storage facility.
Following a widely utilized testing program last winter, resort tax board member Kevin Germain will lead the implementation of another testing program ahead of the 2021-22 ski season.
Gallatin County remains in a high transmission status and is currently seeing an upward trend in active COVID-19 cases with 652 active cases as of publication time. On Oct. 13, more than 510 Montanans were reported hospitalized with the virus, topping the state’s previous pandemic record of 506 last November. A Sept. 20 report from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services found that from Feb. 7 to Sept. 4, nearly 90 percent of patients hospitalized for COVID-19 were not fully vaccinated.
Hospitals across the state of Montana are feeling the pressure and 150 members of the Montana National Guard have been sent to hospitals including 10 that went to Bozeman Health.
In an Oct. 13 interview with EBS, Taylor Rose, director of clinical services & operations at the Big Sky Medical Center, said he expects this trend to continue in upcoming months. “I would say we are expecting a lot more COVID than we saw last winter,” Rose told EBS. He compared last year with this year and said that there are more people coming in to the hospital with COVID and staying as inpatients this year.
“All of 2020 we maybe had a handful of COVID inpatients and we’ve had COVID patients stay in our hospital in inpatient status almost nonstop the entire month of September and October,” Rose said.
The $250,000 the resort tax board allocated to the hospital will in part fund the construction of a new supply room, which will open up an operating room that has previously served as a supply room. Freeing up the OR will mean more space for COVID-19 patients and access to oxygen available in that room.
The resort tax money will also fund a new PCR test machine, which will increase capacity to 500-plus tests a day, up from the 48 tests a day the center’s current analyzer processes, according to Rose. Turnaround times will also improve with the new machine giving staff the ability to process tests through the night and consistently return results within 24 hours.
The total cost for both medical center projects is about $1.5 million. Rose was able to fund part of both projects through a Yellowstone Club Community Foundation grant for $300,000. After the district’s $250,000 allocation, Rose was able to secure funds though other philanthropic sources and BSMC available capital to fill in the remaining $250,000 gap.
Board members were eager to support BSMC and no downsides were brought up in their discussion. The testing program, however, spurred a thorough conversation during the meeting about whether or not funding the testing program would be the best use of public monies.
Board Vice Chair Ciara Wolfe voiced questions about who would have access to the tests this winter as well as concerns about how far into the future BSRAD will be funding testing programs since COVID-19 will be a long-term reality.
Germain countered that investing the $150,000, or about 1.5 percent of BSRAD allocations, in community health is a sound investment by the board.
Board Chair Sarah Blechta advocated for the allocation. “I think this is a great idea and I think we need to do everything we can do to keep our community safe and our economy running here in Big Sky,” she said during the meeting.
Board members also discussed lack of testing availability in the county and challenges businesses will face this year. Currently, a Montana law, House Bill 702 says businesses cannot require their employees to be vaccinated and they cannot discriminate based on vaccination status. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden is developing a rule that requires all employers with 100 or more employees either ensure their workforce is fully vaccinated or require their unvaccinated employees to provide a negative test result on a weekly basis. Germain said large employers in Big Sky are working on a way to navigate the conflicting directives.
After a lengthy discussion, the board voted to allocate $150,000 to fund a testing program for the 2021-22 winter. The plan is to make the self-tests available at the Big Sky Chamber of Commerce for residents to pick up and administer at home. Should an individual receive a positive result they will then deal directly with contact tracers alleviating a lot of the pressure felt by BSRAD staff running the program last year.
“I can guarantee that people were kept out of the hospital through that surveillance program,” Rose told EBS, “and as we do that this winter that will probably be the case again.” Last season, approximately 58,206 tests were administered by the surveillance testing revealing 1,085 positive cases over the course of the winter.
“[Testing] is important because the pandemic hasn’t ended,” Germain said in an interview with EBS after the meeting. “COVID is still here, we still need to support our community to navigate the pandemic and the best way that we can find as a resort tax board is by providing tests to our community, just like we did last winter, as well as supporting our hospital system as you saw in the $250,000 that was allocated.”