A construction company building a luxury resort in Big Sky confirmed Thursday that 116 workers there tested positive for the coronavirus this month.
The outbreak at the $400 million Montage Big Sky in the Spanish Peaks Mountain Club is among the largest in Montana.
The majority of the workers who tested positive are located in Gallatin County. Others live in Carbon, Lewis and Clark, Missoula, Park and Yellowstone counties, according to Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesperson Jon Ebelt.
Additional counties may be involved as state and local officials are still investigating the outbreak and identifying associated cases, Ebelt said.
Suffolk Construction, the company leading the work at the Montage Big Sky, hired a private lab to conduct voluntary testing of workers at the site beginning on July 8.
Use of the private lab posed challenges for local health departments as they worked to get complete and accurate data about the tests, said Gallatin City-County Health Officer Matt Kelley.
Kelley said the health department wasn’t aware of Suffolk’s testing initiative until after it had begun. He also said the results from the private lab weren’t validated by the state, which made it difficult to track, interpret and respond to them.
At first, Suffolk did its own contact tracing for the cases rather than local health departments, as is typical, Kelley said. In some cases, the health department didn’t know where individuals who had tested positive were living, making it hard to follow up later.
“We can’t just do testing,” Kelley said. “It needs to be connected to the broader system.”
The private lab has now been validated by the state and testing data is being reported to and followed up by health departments, Kelley said.
In response to the state’s recent uptick in COVID-19 cases, Suffolk Construction hired a private out-of-state lab for the testing of workers at the Montage Big Sky, said executive project director Joel Nickel.
All of the workers who tested positive were asymptomatic and had passed a temperature check before testing positive, according to Suffolk Construction. After the results came back, the workers were sent home to self-isolate and their close contacts were notified. The job site was also cleaned before workers returned.
Nickel said the company decided to hire a private lab to conduct testing to ensure the construction site was safe and to help conserve state and local testing resources.
“We took a proactive step and did the testing to make sure everybody in the community is safe,” he said.
Twenty percent of the initial tests of workers were positive, a rate that Kelley said was concerning.
As COVID-19 cases have been identified and as those testing positive have been isolated, the positivity rate has declined. About 5% of tests are now positive, Kelley said, which is similar to the rate of positive tests in Gallatin County.
Suffolk Construction has conducted 885 tests at the Montage Big Sky and will continue to test workers at regular intervals, following a strategy provided by the private lab it is working with, Nickel said.
The Montage Big Sky construction site was also associated with six cases in late March. At the time, Suffolk Construction said it was taking significant precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19, including temperature checks, regular cleaning and audible warning devices to keep workers 6 feet apart.
Suffolk Construction isn’t the only organization conducting surveillance testing in Big Sky.
In early July, Bozeman Health hosted a surveillance testing event at Big Sky Medical Center where about 700 tests were conducted on asymptomatic individuals. Due to a nationwide testing backlog, it took two to three weeks for some results to be returned, Kelley said. Ultimately, only three or four people tested positive.
Kelley said the Gallatin City-County Health Department, which did not participate in the Bozeman Health’s event, isn’t prioritizing surveillance testing but instead is focusing on the testing of symptomatic people, their close contacts and those who live in congregate living facilities like nursing homes.
“Surveillance testing has a place,” Kelley said. “But I’d like us to see us get to the point where we have figured out diagnostic testing first.”