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

Omicron amplifies hospital staffing shortages, contact tracing challenges

 St. Peter's Hospital in Helena, MT.
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Public Radio
St. Peter's Hospital in Helena, MT.

The Flathead City-County Health Department is moving away from tracing all close contacts to positive COVID-19 cases. Officials say the speed at which the omicron variant spreads makes it nearly impossible to quarantine close contacts before they are infectious.

Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell says the shift is in line with guidance from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services as well as national public health organizations.

“The sheer numbers of cases have to drive us to do something different because there’s just not enough person-hours in the day to do a classic investigation, contact tracing and quarantine,” Russell says.

Several national public health organizations this week put out a joint statement saying omicron has made traditional contact tracing difficult because the incubation period for the virus is short and most people are infectious before they show symptoms. The statement says health officials should still find a way to identify close contacts to positive cases who are at risk of severe disease.

Russell says the Flathead County health department has been able to automate its system so that anyone who tests positive will receive a text notification with a request to fill out a form identifying high-risk close contacts, such as nursing home residents.

“It’ll actually build us a table so we can rapidly identify high-risk exposures.”

Russell says up to 70% of positive cases have filled out those forms. His department will reach out to high-risk close contacts and advise them to get tested and quarantine.

In an email to local health officials this week, DPHHS recommended that local health jurisdictions move to this automated system in an effort to streamline the identification of high-risk close contacts. DPHHS spokesperson Jon Ebelt said many counties are in that process. Lincoln County announced Wednesday it is following that

Hospital staff shortages

Corin Cates-Carney

St. Peter’s Health and Shodair Children’s Hospital in Helena say they are dealing with a severe staffing shortage due to a record number of staff becoming infected with COVID-19 and increasing staff turnover.

In a press release, St. Peter’s Chief Medical Officer Shelly Harkins said people should be prepared for longer wait times for emergency services and canceled procedures. She added that the hospital does not have enough staff on hand to meet the demand for inpatient beds, and transferring patients to out-of-state facilities has become increasingly difficult as hospitals have once again become overwhelmed with COVID patients.

The problem is only getting worse in Montana as COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide have increased nearly 90% over the past two weeks.

Shodair CEO Craig Aasved says the children’s hospital is also grappling with severe staffing shortages, and the waitlist of kids in need of immediate inpatient psychiatric care is growing.

Both Shodair and St. Peter’s say they are ramping up efforts to retain staff by increasing pay and bringing on more med school students for rotations.

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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