4th and COVID


A holiday famous for gatherings, July 4th was greeted by steadily growing COVID-19 cases in Gallatin County. The week prior to the holiday presented five new cases in West Yellowstone, six new cases in Big Sky and 38 cases in the Gallatin Valley. Over the weekend, 32 additional cases were discovered, bringing the total to 326 as of July 6. Gallatin City-County Health Department continues to encourage caution as the mask debate rages.

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

In response to the recent uptick, Big Sky Chamber of Commerce, in partnership with Big Sky Resort Area District and Visit Big Sky made use of a grant from Big Sky Relief and purchased 50,000 masks to be distributed to area businesses “willing to, at a minimum, strongly encourage their employees and guests to wear a face covering,” a Big Sky Chamber of Commerce Facebook post said. Roxy’s Market is now mandating the use of masks by customers.

Active cases in Big Sky only present part of the story, Kelley explained. The health department’s contact investigations led to many more people who were in close contact with known cases. Those people have been asked to quarantine for 14 days in order to limit spread. It is not just happening in Big Sky, either, he noted, but in Bozeman, Belgrade and West Yellowstone. The health department is finding community transmission in Gallatin County, “we are detecting cases for which there is no obvious source of infection; there is no out of state travel.”

“The bottom line is simple: the disease is spreading readily and widely in Gallatin County,” he said and noted that the days ahead could produce rapid acceleration of cases from July 4th festivities.

He encouraged people with underlying health conditions to be pragmatic – avoid social gatherings altogether, and he stressed the same behavior from people in close contact with anyone with a health condition.

The nature of the virus creates further challenges: it impacts people differently.

“We do not yet totally understand how it spreads and we cannot predict who will have mild symptoms and who will end up much sicker and maybe become hospitalized,” he said. “While it is true that many who contract the disease suffer mild symptoms, it is also true that 125,000 Americans have died from the virus in four months – a number that is likely a significant undercount of cases.”

Kelley requested that those who chose to host gatherings keep them small, keep them simple and keep them safe – encouraging people to limit group size as much as possible and allow guests to be outdoors with six feet of space whenever possible. Consider having guests bring their own food. Avoid shared use of serving utensils. Wear face coverings when social distancing is difficult. The coming weeks could show how well area residents heeded his warnings and recommendations.

“Just to reiterate – just a reminder: social distancing and wearing a mask when in public helps us and helps everyone. During our tourist season I think it is more important than ever. Now is not the time to get lax. We need to continue to take care of each other and stay safe,” Big Sky Fire Department Chief Greg Megaard said.

As more cities and states across the nation are mandating the use of masks, Kelley has been fielding more and more calls from citizens on both sides of the fence.

“The issue at times – it’s been polarizing and partisan and that is unfortunate and frankly, unhelpful,” he said. But he has noticed a “somewhat” more unified attitude about masks. He then quoted Vice President Mike Pence: “Wearing a mask is just a good idea, and it will – we know from experience – slow the spread of coronavirus.”

Kelley said that while the science is inexact and research is still being conducted to understand the disease, how the masks help mitigate spread, and how well they help, the populace is hearing clear and direct advice from the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and experts like Dr. Andrew Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to wear the masks.

“Wear a mask when social distancing is difficult. Do it because it protects you, but also because it protects others around you. This does not need to be a matter of politics or partisanship nor cause for division,” he said. His hope is that people will begin to view the wearing of masks as common courtesy for those around them.

Governor Steve Bullock also addressed the divisive issues of masks and social distancing prior to the holiday. He presented data, noting that less than 10% of Montana COVID–19 cases are coming from tourists – the majority are coming from Montanans who are not following CDC or health department recommendations.

Kelley described the possibility of a mandate of masks as a big community decision. The board of health will make that call and the board has expressed interest in hearing from the public regarding the issue.

“It will be a board of health decision, whatever happens and I wouldn’t presume to make a decision before them. I think all things are on the table,” he said, but noted that their main objective remains educating people about the benefits of wearing a mask – to make them want to wear one.

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