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

Montana’s Health Care Staffing Issues Persist, Despite Vaccines

An image of someone receiving a vaccination pulled from the CDC site on 01.12.21.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Montana’s frontline health care workers are receiving their second doses of COVID-19 vaccines, guaranteeing fewer will become infected with the virus. But hospitals are not changing quarantine policies for vaccinated workers exposed to COVID-19, meaning staffing capacity will likely continue to be an issue in hospitals across the state.

When Montana began to see a surge in COVID-19 cases in mid-October, hospitals started to notice that bed capacity wasn’t their most pressing issue. It was maintaining their staff numbers as many workers became infected with the virus or were on quarantine after an exposure.

Billings Clinic Chief Nursing Officer Laurie Smith saw the effect first-hand.

“At one point we had 180 to about 200 employees who were in quarantine," she said. "And as of today, we had 60.”

Since late November, COVID-19 hospitalizations across the state have roughly been cut in half and active case numbers are about a fourth of what they once were. That’s good news, but on Monday half of the state’s largest hospitals reported being over 70% full, and a fifth of the state’s smaller hospitals were in a similar or worse position.

Smith said Billings Clinic still has extra units opened up to keep up with typical wintertime respiratory patients, and those sick with COVID-19.

“We’re having discussions and really monitoring day to day … what those staffing levels look like."

Smith added that COVID vaccines won’t help reduce the number of quarantined workers, at least for now.

“Currently, we haven’t altered any of those policies or processes, as we’re in the early phases of vaccination and still learning what vaccination and immunity responses look like."

Kellie Kujawa, Bozeman Health’s COVID-19 incident command lead, says hospitals have not received any federal guidance on what, if any, changes should be made to quarantine policies for vaccinated staff.

“We have reviewed all of the CDC literature, and all of the available literature out there, and the evidence, and we are still requiring quarantine of individuals who have been vaccinated."

Like Billings Clinic, Bozeman Health is maintaining its quarantine policies in the absence of federal guidance. There is no indication on if or when the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will release recommendations on whether vaccinated staff should follow different quarantine policies.

Hospital officials like Kujawa are also waiting for federal guidance on whether vaccinated staff will need to wear as much personal protective gear while caring for COVID patients, as supplies remain somewhat unstable.

“I think we’re in the same exact position as many other health care institutions in trying to navigate the new landscape of having vaccinated employees, trying to use our experts, as well as the literature, to come up with something that can help us with managing the different exposures and quarantines moving forward," Kujawa says.

With a reduced number of active case statewide and fewer hospitalized COVID patients, hospital officials are cautiously optimistic about the worst of the pandemic is behind us.

But they aren’t taking any chances. According to the state health department, eight hospitals across the state have maintained contracts with 100 of the traveling health care workers the state was able to secure in December. They say it's currently a necessary step in maintaining staffing levels — especially if we see another surge in Montana.

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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