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The latest news about the novel coronavirus and COVID-19 in Montana.

Montana Hospitals Facing Staff Shortages Amid COVID-19 Surge

Health care worker holding a clipboard.

As COVID-19 cases across the state surge, the number of available hospital beds for COVID and other patients is quickly becoming a concern. But a shortage of health care workers to staff and watch over patients in those beds is already a problem in some areas of the state.

Eric Vezina is a registered nurse in Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s COVID-19 unit. He says that unit has been growing as cases in Flathead and surrounding counties rise.

"We were originally a 12-bed COVID unit and now we’ve expanded to up to 20 beds at times."

But Veznina says bed numbers aren’t the only issue. Nurses like Vezina are at times being asked to take care of more patients than normal, something KRH’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Doug Nelson says hospital leaders are paying close attention to. He says more medical staff are being exposed to COVID-19 inside and outside of the hospital. 

"That affects our ability to staff. Again, that’s something we’re working really hard on. We’re able to do it right now, but again, something that we’re watching day to day and hour to hour."

To help, Nelson says staff that have experienced what he calls a “low-risk exposure” to COVID-19 are continuing to work in the absence of symptoms and a positive test. Nelson says the hospital has room to add more beds for COVID patients in other departments. 

However, he says if KRH were to need its 100-bed emergency overflow unit for non-COVID patients set up by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers earlier this year, KRH would also need more nurses and doctors to take care of those patients.

KRH isn’t alone in its staffing struggles. Robin Haux with the Montana Nurses Association explains staffing is becoming just as much, if not more of an issue than available beds for medical facilities statewide. 

"Today alone, not to call out any of our facilities, I know one facility that has over 40 employees that are out on quarantine right now."

Haux says the nurses association is asking local nursing unions to encourage their members to take extra shifts and the association is also helping state health officials get the word out about the Montana Mutual Aid System.

"This a callout for medical professionals in Montana that are needed to assist during the COVID-19 pandemic. So we’re basically creating a volunteer pool."

Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesperson Jon Ebelt said in an emailed statement that state health officials aren’t tracking staffing levels across the state. But Ebelt says Registered Nurses, Licensed Practical Nurses, Paramedics, EMTs, and CNAs are the positions most requested from the mutual aid system. The program also allows volunteers without medical training to assist with tracing people potentially exposed to the virus. 

Sixty-nine volunteers have already been sent to nine facilities mostly on or near the state’s American Indian reservations. Ebelt says some requests for RNs across the state have gone unfilled. Large facilities like Billings Clinic say they are bringing in 60 travelling nurses from out of state to help its staff handle a growing number of hospitalizations.

"It’s been very, very challenging for our staff, so much so that people are talking about giving up their careers in health care," Billings Clinic CEO Dr. Scott Ellner says.

Ellner and other hospital leaders say counties like Yellowstone implementing more stringent public health restrictions is a move in the right direction, but they are imploring Montanans to change their behavior in order to ease the current surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

The current active list of requests which have been filled:

  • Northern Cheyenne, 10 (emergency medical services drivers, drivers to deliver supplies, RNs, contact tracers)
  • Blackfeet, 12 (includes CNAs, emergency medical services drivers)
  • Ft. Peck Tribe, 10 (includes drivers to deliver supplies to people who are quarantined)
  • Northeast Montana Health Services serving Wolf Point and Poplar, 10 (includes emergency medical services drivers, CNAs, RNs)
  • Indian Health Services-Poplar, 8 (includes contact tracers, RNs)
  • Roosevelt Medical Center (Culbertson), 5 (includes support to CNAs, RNs)
  • Crow Nation, 7 (includes contact tracers, RN)
  • Fort Belknap 6 (drivers to deliver supplies)
  • Carbon County, 1 (contact tracer) 

There are currently 11 requests unfilled, a majority of these requests are RNs. Some of these requests have been submitted in the last week. 

Aaron graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Journalism in 2015 after interning at Minnesota Public Radio. He landed his first reporting gig in Wrangell, Alaska where he enjoyed the remote Alaskan lifestyle and eventually moved back to the road system as the KBBI News Director in Homer, Alaska. He joined the MTPR team in 2019. Aaron now reports on all things in northwest Montana and statewide health care.
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