PHOTO BY JOHN STEMBER

Largest case load of the pandemic is happening now

Keeping an eye on COVID-19 data

Nearly two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, with life inching onward and widespread fatigue amongst Americans, the virus continues to act behind the scenes and spread. With the number of positive cases reaching the highest amounts since the pandemic began, it is important to stay up to date on the situation unfolding and how it will impact our businesses, our schools, and our tired healthcare system.

Taylor Rose, the Big Sky Medical Center’s (BSMC) director of Clinical Services and Operations, explained, “BSMC has seen the highest demand for testing over the last four weeks than we have seen throughout the entire pandemic. During our peak we were testing over 150/day here at BSMC. Prior to Dec 2021 a busy day testing would be 50/day. Right now, we are scheduling 120/day. Demand this past week has slowed with anywhere from 60-100 tests per day.”

Based on BSMC’s data from Jan. 9-13, 38% of COVID-19 tests are coming back positive. In addition, 37% of those being tested at BSMC are from outside the state.

Given staffing shortages across the country and an overworked health care system struggling to adapt to the Omicron wave, the six-year-old BSMC and its staff are under pressure again to serve residents and the winter influx of tourists. Earlier this year, BSMC purchased a Hologic Panther machine to analyze PCR tests and provide faster COVID-19 test results. The extremely high testing demands and a recent analyzer malfunction have led Deaconess Hospital in Bozeman to send specimens for testing up to BSMC.

“Focusing on where the demand is most acute has been our strategy. When we see a surge in testing, we move our resources to that operation. When demand shifts to the emergency department, we have moved resources there. We try and stay ahead of demand by looking at trends, and overall feel that we have done a very good job,” said Rose.

GALLATIN COUNTY AS A WHOLE

Lori Christensen, the Gallatin City-County Health Department (GCCHD) Officer, explained some of the larger trends coming from Gallatin County during a press call on Friday, Jan. 14.

“The seven-day rolling average for cases per 100,000 residents was 257.2 cases per 100,000. That was as of Jan. 12… This represents about a 22% increase from the previous week,” said Christensen. For a comparison, the second largest peak in COVID-19 cases occurred during the first winter of the pandemic back in 2020. The seven day average was about 150 cases per 100,000 residents. The lowest average in Gallatin County was less than 10 cases per 100,000 in July of 2021.

Christensen explained that about a third of tests (32.8%) are currently coming back positive and the highest rate of active cases in Gallatin County are coming from 12-17 year olds and 18-29 year olds. The numbers of infections correlated with age groups can be seen in Table 1.

COVID-19 Incident Commander for Bozeman Health, Kallie Kujawa, looked exhausted on Friday's call as she explained “Our testing numbers continue to increase. Last week, as you saw in the graphs... we processed approximately 4,486 swabs for COVID-19 testing alone.”

“This week so far, we are collecting on average 550 swabs for COVID-19 testing per day. It’s the highest collection demands we have experienced throughout the pandemic,” said Kujawa.

MONTANA STATE UNIVERSITY

Tracy Ellig, Vice President of University Communications at MSU, also answered questions on the call. Colleges across the country are struggling to decide whether to return to in-person classes after the winter break and how to manage a pandemic when mass testing and contract tracing feels difficult to sustain. The University of Wyoming, for example, is transitioning its approach from containment to management because of how widespread Omicron is within the community.

At MSU, Ellig said “It’s going to look very much like it did last semester, which is, masks are required essentially everywhere indoors in campus… Our goal is to the best of our ability remain an in-person semester for the spring. It’s fundamentally all of the tools that we were using last semester we are continuing to use in the spring.”

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