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BOZEMAN, Mont. - Gallatin County is seeing a third surge in COVID-19 cases, with many tied to Montana State University and several assisted living facilities.

Health officials are concerned with the rise in cases, but their message to the public remains the same: mask up and take COVID precautions seriously.

Gallatin County saw 34 new cases in one day last week, and 14 on Monday. It may not sound like much compared to other counties and states, but there are now 66 new cases connected to Montana State University.

In the span of a week (from September 17 to September 24), there was a 643% increase in active cases at the university. MSU's Vice President of Communications, Tracy Ellig, says they're taking the cases seriously. But he points out that the number of cases is still less than three-tenths of one percent of the school's students, faculty, and staff.

"We don't want to diminish the fact that these numbers have gone up. We just want them to be kept into context," Ellig explains.

In the month and a half since starting the fall semester, Ellig says they've encouraged students to practice the "big four" points: mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing, and taking action to get tested if you have coronavirus symptoms.

Students and faculty that have tested positive for the virus - or are getting tested for it - are being asked to quarantine. The university has set up separate quarantine areas for students who are living in dorms.

For the fall 2020 semester, students have several options for how they can learn: fully online, fully in-person, or a hybrid of both.

The majority of new cases in the county are coming from people aged 10-29. But it's not just young people who are testing positive. Gallatin County is starting to see its first cases popping up in its rest homes. There are now "five or six" rest homes that have cases associated with them, according the Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley.

"We have a couple that have multiple cases and that's really concerning," says Kelley, "just because we know the significant risk of hospitalization or death."

The health department is working with those facilities to limit the spread internally, while also working with unaffected care homes to prevent any cases entering their facilities.

"It's a real wake-up call," Kelley says, "it really should be a reminder to everybody of things that we can all do - like washing your hands, keeping good social distancing, wearing face coverings - will really help us keep cases down. And that helps us protect seniors in those facilities, it helps us keep kids in school, it helps us keep businesses running, it helps us keep the whole community safe."

Even though the majority of new cases in Gallatin County are in younger people, the situation in Yellowstone County's Canyon Creek Memory Care Facility - where more than a dozen residents died and dozens more were infected - has shown that numbers can change quickly when long-term care facilities are involved.

The cases are likely coming from many different places, according to Kelley: Labor Day celebrations, students going back to school, people spending more time indoors with colder weather, spread from counties with more cases, and the mostly-maskless rally for Vice President Mike Pence in Bozeman in mid-September.

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