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Missoula County has 20 new cases of COVID-19, the highest of any county among the new 49 confirmed cases statewide, according to the tally by Montana health officials released Tuesday morning. 

Included in those cases are five Missoula Fire Department firefighters who tested positive for COVID-19, the City announced in a press release Tuesday.

Fire Chief Jeff Brandt and his staff have been working closely with the Missoula City-County Health Department for immediate testing and contact tracing since the detection of the first case last week within the department.

Chief Brandt does not believe there is an exposure risk for members of the public because Fire Department personnel wear protective gear on calls for service, the press release stated. 

Meanwhile, the department's other firefighters are stepping up to cover shifts and fill the shoes of the sick and quarantined firefighters.

“The Missoula Fire Department would like to reiterate that we are fully committed and prepared to continue to safely provide the same level of emergency services to the community that we always have,”  Brandt said in the press release. “Although we are acutely aware of the unease this might cause community members, our firefighters on the front lines are properly protected to render the safest aid possible. Our entire staff is following the guidelines and parameters established by the Missoula Health Department for testing, quarantine and return-to-work protocol."

Firefighters who tested positive must go through two tests with negative results before returning to work, and others are tested at the end of the quarantine period.

Tuesday's statewide new case count is the second-highest tally in a single day since the pandemic struck Montana in mid-March. Monday's count, 56, was the highest. The state reported 2,118 new tests completed. Tuesday's count brings Missoula County's total to 86. One person in Missoula County has died from the novel coronavirus. 

Missoula City-County Health Officer Ellen Leahy said Tuesday the recent flare in cases should serve as an alarm.

"That first spike was slammed down with the closures," Leahy said. "For those of us that haven't realized how quickly, and how stealthy, this threat is, this is the opportunity for an eye-opening."

The question of whether to close bars and restaurants again hangs on the health department's ability to conduct contract tracing and monitor those in isolation and quarantine, Leahy said. If the case count tips over the staff's ability to properly survey the cases as they come in, there may be cause to quiet the bar scene. Even now, Leahy said, staff are working seven days a week to keep up.

"We are adding to that staff right now," Leahy said. "But this last weekend, for example, everybody who does that work worked all weekend. … They worked all week, all weekend and they're going to be working this week. That's probably the first measure that we have to keep the closest eye on."

The second measure to consider before closing bars and restaurants again looks at hospital capacity, Leahy said. As of Tuesday, a dozen people statewide are hospitalized with COVID-19, while there have been 101 hospitalizations since the onset of the pandemic. 

Johns Hopkins University recommends local test positivity rates hold below 5% before reopening. Leahy said Missoula County's rate began below 5% and has remained there. 

Leahy emphasized that the recent climb in Missoula County's case counts has largely spread among people who know one another. The health department's investigations have found clusters among family members who have gathered, as well as co-workers who loosen their masks when talking with each other.

"We are spreading it among the people we are familiar with," she said. "That's whats happening right now in Missoula."

This story will be updated.

This article originally ran on missoulian.com.

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