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Governor: Successful school year will hinge on COVID caution come fall

Gov. Steve Bullock said the likelihood of conducting classroom education in colleges and K-12 this fall is dependent upon Montanans’ behavior during the next few weeks. (Audrey Pettit screenshot)

Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday outlined improvements made to testing over the past few weeks and turned an eye toward the coming school year, which could hinge on the containment of COVID-19 and where case counts are come fall.

Where a backlog once slowed test results up to nearly two weeks, Bullock said testing has since accelerated and is keeping pace with demand. In the last week of July alone, Montana conducted over 20,000 tests, Bullock said.

“While this is some positive news, we do know that some positive tests were 2 or 3 weeks old as the result of some backlog at Quest,” Bullock said. “Quest is now finished with its backlog of our Montana tests.”

That said, the tests from last week are accurate to their daily count. Montana has also expanded its testing facilities to Mako Labs in North Carolina, which provides test results within 2-3 days.

Additionally, “Montana State University is just about finished with its validation process required to ensure test accuracy,” Bullocks said.

With increased testing centers, Bullock hopes to reup community testing events across the state. He identified nine hot spot counties in Montana that contained 80% of the positive tests in the months of June and July, including Flathead, Missoula, Lewis and Clark, Cascade, Madison, Gallatin, Yellowstone and Big Horn.

Yet Bullock said he doesn’t plan on placing new restrictions on these counties. Rather, he placed a renewed importance on following the mandates already in place.

“One concern is that Montanans are not taking seriously orders from public health to quarantine or isolate,” Bullock said. “When we took this virus seriously and when we do take it seriously, we flatten the curve.”

Both K-12 public schools and the Montana University System plan to reopen in approximately three weeks. Their likelihood of conducting classroom education is dependent upon Montanans’ behavior during the next few weeks.

“That’s not just on our schools. That’s on all of us,” Bullock said.

Montana Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian also spoke to the reopening of university campuses across Montana. He underlined two priorities, including the rapid detection, testing and quarantine of symptomatic individuals, as well as the regular testing of asymptomatic individuals in high risk groups.

“There’s no doubt that the strategies we have prioritized are resource intensive,” Christian said.

Yet he confirmed that based on his consultation with epidemiologists and public health officials, this level of testing is the only way to keep students safe and avoid outbreaks. Still, Christian said every student will not be tested upon their return to campus.

That would have limited usefulness and miss cases in early stages of infection, he said.

“Tests are only part of a larger solution,” Christian said.

Audrey Pettit is a rising junior at Barnard College of Columbia University and an intern at the Missoula Current. She welcomes any constructive discourse about her reporting; you can contact her at agp2147@barnard.edu.