Flathead County's COVID-19 dashboard, pictured here in a screenshot taken Wednesday, June 17, 2020, has begun recording nonresident cases.

Amid a “concerning” increase of positive COVID-19 cases this week, Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday said the state will begin publicly reporting case numbers among visitors and part-time residents. 

Many of the 69 new cases reported in the last seven days can be attributed to increased testing, workplace clusters and social or family circle transmission, Bullock said at a Wednesday press conference. But, he added, an increasing number of nonresidents have tested positive for COVID-19 while in Montana since the state entered the second phase of its reopening plan June 1, which eliminated the two-week quarantine requirement for people traveling to the state. 

Of the recent cases, Bullock said five are tied to out-of-state travel or nonresidents coming to Montana since the start of phase two. 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines call for people who test positive to be listed in their home state’s statistics, even if they tested positive in a different state, Bullock said. Even so, he said, it’s important to highlight nonresident cases present in Montana communities. 

State officials will soon include the number of nonresident positive tests in its online case tracker, Bullock said, adding that where the visitors tested positive will be included as well.

“The CDC has residency requirements to dictate how a state counts cases. So a vacationer, for example, diagnosed here in Montana would be counted in their regular place of residence,” he said. “But it’s in the best interest of folks in our state to know if someone has a virus in their community, even if they’re only there for a short time.”

State officials reported 18 new cases on Wednesday, bringing the cumulative total of reported cases to 630, with 72 of those cases considered active. Twenty Montana deaths have been attributed to the virus. 

In Ravalli County, health officials said in a Tuesday press release that some of the county’s five active cases weren’t reflected in the state’s official statistics because they were residents of a different state who were in the county visiting family. On Wednesday, Ravalli County Public Health Department Director Karyn Johnston said two nonresident cases — the first of whom tested positive late last week — were quarantining in the county. 

On Wednesday, Flathead County officials said they had started separately tracking active COVID-19 cases among nonresidents on the county’s online database. As of Wednesday afternoon, Hilary Hanson, Health Officer of the Flathead City-County Health Department, said one nonresident had tested positive for the virus while in the county. 

“We know that as we enter into our peak tourism season, our county could see an influx of out-of-state visitors,” Hanson said in a Wednesday press release. “We wanted to make this information more accessible to community members and business owners alike.”

The county has reported three new confirmed cases since late last week, the first new cases in nearly two months. Still, with traditionally high numbers of out-of-state visitors to the county, Hanson said officials expected to begin finding cases among part-time residents and tourists. She said she hopes the new cases show residents the importance of continuing to follow public health guidelines to limit the spread of the virus. 

“We need to go back to being diligent,” Hanson said. “We want to remain open. We want our businesses to remain open.”

Lake County also has a family cluster tied to travel or out-of-state visitors, Bullock said.  

As the state and health workers continue to test more residents and nonresidents, Bullock said, he expects case numbers to continue to rise. Given that, he said, Montanans should continue to follow public health recommendations to set an example and not “be taking steps backwards.” 

“In addition to social distancing, washing hands, disinfecting, let’s make mask wearing where social distancing isn’t possible the norm in Montana,” Bullock said. “So when visitors come to our state, they know this is the Montana way [and] that they should follow suit.”

Bullock also said it’s important to place the numbers in context of those reported by nearby states including South Dakota and Idaho. 

“Montana has the lowest number of cases of any state in the country [and] the third-lowest increase in cases over this past week,” he said. “We still have the lowest positive, the lowest hospitalizations, and the lowest deaths per capita in the Lower 48.”

Chris Aadland covers tribal affairs in Montana as a Report for America corps member based in Billings. Before moving to Montana he covered the Wind River Reservation in Wyoming for the Casper Star-Tribune, and has also reported for the Wisconsin State Journal. Contact Chris at caadland@montanafreepress.org and follow @cjaadland on Twitter.