Montana universities expanding state's testing capacities

HELENA - Gov. Steve Bullock held a press call Thursday announcing a directive on the upcoming 2020 November election, and the commissioner of higher education announced plans for COVID-19 testing on state university campuses this fall.  

Gov. Bullock first gave an update on the state's COVID-19 testing status. Montana conducted 20,000 tests in the last week of July.

"While this is some positive news," Gov. Bullock said, "We do know that thousands of those tests were two to three weeks old as a result of backlog in Quest." He added Quest has caught up with Montana's testing backlogs from July.

Gov. Bullock announced a new directive granting counties to decide to include mail-in voting during the 2020 general election in November. He added all counties are required to keep in-person voting as an option on election day; however, they must have social distancing guidelines in place for the safety of Montanans and election administrators, while ensuring voting rights. 

Also a part of the 2020 general election directive, Gov. Bullock says he is expanding the time period for voter registration and early voting.

“I am in agreement with our bipartisan election administrators – who are the ones on the ground with the first-hand knowledge of how to successfully conduct an election – that we must protect Montanans’ right to vote, while protecting the public’s health,” Governor Bullock said. “Locally elected officials best understand the voting needs of their communities, and taking this action now ensures they will have the time to make the right decisions for their localities. With this approach we can protect that fundamental right to vote, while easing crowding and pressure on voting on Election Day.” 

Additionally, Gov. Bullock provided an update with Commissioner of Higher Education Clay Christian on what the Montana University System's preparation plans are for testing on state college campuses this fall. Gov. Bullock announced he is allocating $20 million from the CARES Act towards state universities to protect students returning to campus and to manage the virus. 

Christian provided two of MUS' testing priorities for a safe return to campuses.

The first is implementing rapid testing on symptomatic students, processing the results timely, rapidly isolating students with positive results, rapidly quarantining and rapidly conducting contact tracing. Christian says they want to prevent single cases from turning into clusters and prevent clusters from turning into large outbreaks.

"This effort will require significant resources in terms of staffing, health services staffing, technicians, campus coordinators, and beyond," Christian said. "It will also require intensive resources from our public health partners, and we will assist those health partners in efforts around contact tracing, offering staff and facilities for contact tracing, isolation, quarantine housing and of course most importantly, testing and rapid processing."

Christian also said they are working to plan testing for vulnerable student populations, including frontline workers, students needing to congregate in large crowds such as choir and theater, and students "at heightened risk" 

The second priority is the greater testing of asymptomatic students and Christian says they will work with campuses to identify those students. 

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