As Missoula's first glimpse of winter unfolded over the weekend, experts from the Missoula City-County Health Department and epidemiologists from UM’s Health Sciences department expressed concern about the county’s continued rise in cases.

The group of health experts met for the third time over Zoom Thursday, Oct. 22, and discussed overall trends the area has seen with the pandemic. They found a rise in cases among the elderly and a need for more tests.

“The last time our epi situation unit held a press conference back on August 19, the status of COVID-19 in our community was relatively stable,” UM epidemiologist Erin Semmens said. “The stability we saw a couple of months ago was fragile, and we can see that now very clearly.”

Since Labor Day weekend, cases dramatically increased from a few dozen to just under 700 countywide active cases on Oct. 26. The percent of people testing positive reached 8% this month. According to John Hopkins University, a rate over 5% means there are either too many people testing positive, or too few tests in the community.

Twenty-six people were hospitalized in the county Oct. 26, roughly a third of those are from communities outside of Missoula. Ten people have died from the virus in Missoula County, and six of those deaths occurred in the last month.

UM cases dropped significantly after two large clusters based in Greek Life and Athletics spiked active cases to over 120 in mid-September. As of Oct. 26, there are fewer than 60 University-affiliated active cases.

Health department director Ellen Leahy attributed the drop in UM cases to the cancellation of University extracurricular activities.

“As we started to gather information about where transmission and exposure was happening, it was happening in the air in the less structured areas, without social distancing or the mask,” Leahy said. “One of the first things the University did when they started seeing a spike was to pull back on their extracurricular activities.”

Young people in general make up less of Missoula County’s overall COVID-19 percentages, down from 50% of all cases at the beginning of October to 29% last week.

While COVID-19 continues to rise from normal social activities, presenters at the event voiced additional concern about the upcoming Halloween weekend. They said an increase of gatherings, especially when more are inside due to weather, can create a larger spike in Missoula County.

“Not only are these popular times for gatherings and travel, but they also occurred during this colder weather we're starting to experience, so they're going to be indoor gatherings,” UM epidemiologist Ethan Walker said. ”Then when gatherings occur indoors, there's going to be a higher possibility of transmission because there's less ventilation, and there's more close contact.”

The state of Montana allows for congregations of up to 50 people without masks or social distancing, but Missoula County is allowed to implement further restrictions.

Note: This article was originally written and finalized for print on Monday, Oct. 26. Since then, the Missoula City-County Health Dept. has added additional restrictions, which go into effect on Thursday, Oct. 29. Read about those restrictions here.

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