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

Hi-Line Hospitals Struggling As COVID-19 Numbers Spike


As COVID-19 cases across the state increase, Montana’s rural counties, which largely escaped the state’s first peak this spring and summer, are now grappling with large outbreaks.

MTPR’s Aaron Bolton spoke with New Media Broadcasters News Director Josh Margolis, based in Havre, about what he’s seeing along the Hi-Line.

Aaron Bolton Josh, I just want to start broadly. I mean, what are the conditions across the Hi-Line when it comes to COVID-19 cases, public health and hospital capacity right now?

Josh Margolis I really think it's better than it was a couple of weeks ago here in Havre. We had a day a week or two ago where there were 41 new cases. But, the hospitals are are struggling.

And I spoke to the chief of staff at Northern Montana Hospital last week and he said, you know, they can keep going, but they're stressed, they're understaffed. And the people that don't want to wear a mask or don't want to take these preventive measures, don't want to follow quarantine orders, are kind of harming the whole community as a whole. It's it's kind of hard to put it any other way than that.

Aaron Bolton A couple of weeks ago, the head of Frances Mahon Deaconess Hospital in Glasgow said it was overwhelmed. And it sounds like the number of folks in the hospital for COVID and other issues has gone down. But what are hospital leaders across the Hi-Line saying about their ability to treat patients?

Josh Margolis Phillips County Health Department just put a Facebook post up this morning saying that this isn't just about COVID. If you have to go to the hospital for anything right now, you're going to have an issue. Benefis and St. [Vincent] have no available beds. Billings Clinic is nearing capacity.

And it's not just hospitals. Valley County, during one of their board meetings, the volunteer EMS said that there was an accident, a vehicle crash they weren't able to respond to, because they had so many people in their department in quarantine or isolation.

And a lot of people just are struggling to understand the severity of it, and/or are sick and tired of the pandemic.

Aaron Bolton Hill County public health officials recently put out a statement saying people were actually defying isolation and quarantine orders. If you want to talk about that a little bit ...

Josh Margolis The way the health department conducts quarantine and isolation orders, they send a letter in the mail and then notify you over the phone. And if you don't respond, they'll serve an order, they'll have authorities serve an order at your door. They hadn't really served many in the past, but this past week, the election week, they served several. They didn't give me an exact number. But, it's a pretty polarizing issue here in the area. You could argue the local election for the state Legislature, that the seat there represents Havre was decided based on the pandemic, separated by 161 votes. The Republican candidate, Ed Hill, who doesn't wear masks at school board meetings, defeated an advocate for mask wearing, Krystal Steinmetz, the Democrat, in a very close race. In a light blue, I call it, or lean blue district.

Aaron Bolton A lot of counties have implemented new local health restrictions on bars, restaurants and churches and gatherings. And I know Hill County is one of those that has recently enacted some restrictions. Does it seem like other counties across the Hi-Line are willing to do that, or thinking about doing that?

Josh Margolis I haven't seen any proposed measures from many counties. I know Valley County issued a draft order limiting gatherings to no more than 50 people. I believe they're scheduled to vote on that on Thursday. I know Blaine County has not planned on any new restrictions. The two reservations within 40 miles of us, Rocky Boy and Fort Belknap, have implemented restrictions. Other than that, there really hasn't been much on the on the side of restrictions.

Aaron Bolton What are you hearing from public health workers?

Josh Margolis The Hill County Health Officer, Kim Larson, last week said that they currently have 13 to 15 contact tracers on any given day. Based on the case rates they probably would need upwards of 100 in order to accurately contact trace, and do so effectively. And even so, some people aren't being forthright with contact tracers.

Aaron Bolton Turning over to the economic side of this, what has the conversation been like up on the Hi-Line? I mean, are there concerns about the impacts the pandemic is having on the economy there?

Josh Margolis Well, it's not just the pandemic, although the pandemic is definitely a factor. I mean, Amtrak moved to tri-weekly service here in Havre, and that's another cut on the tourism here. Having East Glacier Entrance close to Glacier National Park has slowed down tourism over the summer. Having the Canadian border closed has cut off the Canadian tourism that comes down over the season. Businesses have been holding on, especially here in Havre. But, as the Chamber of Commerce head here said, if we lose the hotels, we might be done, pretty much, to paraphrase. The hotels are still going right now, but that can change, and especially if the border remains closed, especially going into next year. So that's going to be something to to look at.

Aaron Bolton All right. Well, Josh, thanks for taking the time and joining us.

Josh Margolis Thank you, Aaron. Appreciate it.

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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