Steady rise in COVID cases

Health department urges caution with July 4 celebrations

A holiday famous for gatherings, July 4th is being greeted by steadily growing COVID-19 cases in Gallatin County. The five days prior to Wednesday’s press call presented five new cases in West Yellowstone, six new cases in Big Sky and 38 cases in the Gallatin Valley. As a result, the Gallatin City-County Health Department is encouraging caution.

“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. “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.”

Those six active cases in Big Sky only present part of the story, he 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 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,” he said.

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’s advice for those who do make the choice to host gatherings: keep them small, keep them simple and keep them safe – 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.

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 issue.

“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.”

He 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.

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

“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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