BOZEMAN, MT — The first day of Montana State University’s new semester is this week, and to health officials in Gallatin County that means students are going to be making their way back to Bozeman.
That’s causing many, including professors, to share concern over how everyone at MSU will stay safe from COVID-19.
One big question on the table: at MSU, how is asymptomatic testing being funded, operated and prepared for?
“These are three of our public health nurses that have been working their hearts out,” says Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley during Thursday’s Board of Health meeting, presenting photos of three nurses donning masks at the Gallatin County Fairgrounds POD.
The faces of frontline healthcare providers in Bozeman opened Thursday morning’s virtual meeting.
Kelley started, first with a look at now, and then what’s up ahead for Gallatin County.
“MSU students are tested at a significantly higher rate and pace than non-MSU students,” Kelley says.
But on the mind of many, including MSU professors in public comment: the return of university students next week and proper funding for asymptomatic testing.
“My concern is what happens when those tests run out, which will happen probably around the end of January,” said Alexandra Adams, a family physician and MSU COVID researcher.
“That asymptomatic testing, to be efficient, needs to be done one to three times per student per week,” said Matthew Fields, an MSU microbiology professor involved with COVID research. “Again, that number that I’m hearing is 20 to 50,000 tests. That’s going to be a drop in the bucket and will only get us through a week or two.”
MSU spokesperson Tracy Ellig joined the panel, responding to ongoing faculty concern over testing.
“The university is part of a statewide system of campuses,” Ellig said. “Everything that we’ve been able to do has been done as a system so we were able to implement funding for contact tracers that were dedicated to the university, to the symptomatic testing center.”
Since last fall, Ellig says the number of beds available for quarantine and isolation housing has doubled to around 400.
“Every campus sees a smaller enrollment in the spring than in the fall and that will be the case for MSU,” Ellig said. “We think there could be 1,000 to as many as 1,800 students fewer at the university this spring than were in the fall.”
And added that the university is expecting between 1,000 and 1,800 less students for the spring semester, encouraging any with symptoms to stay home or quarantine before returning.
Ellig says asymptomatic testing will be available for resident students on Monday.
“This has been an incredible lift on our university healthcare staff because it’s the same staff that has been pulling together everything else,” Ellig said.
A problem Ellig mentioned: waiting for another allocation of funding for that testing, as well as issues finding personnel.
In the end, the main concern from board members like Christopher Coburn: will the university be able to fund asymptomatic testing for more than a few weeks?
“I feel very strongly that MSU and MUS needs to really think about how to sustain asymptomatic testing for every student throughout the entire semester,” Coburn said. “It’s a lot of work but it falls short of being adequate for us to ensure that we have continued response that is going to keep our community as safe as possible.”
“We absolutely are thinking ahead at every level,” Ellig said. “Everything that you’ve asked for for us to be thinking about is happening.”
The next board of health meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, January 20.
This week, Kelley says the health department received an additional 1,000 doses.