Montana Public Radio

Coronavirus Strains Montana Hospitals Heading Into Flu Season

Oct 2, 2020
Originally published on October 2, 2020 12:41 pm

Hospital administrators in Montana say the recent rise in COVID-19 infections statewide could strain the health care system in coming weeks as patients become more ill and cold and flu season picks up. Health experts are making a plea for Montanans to “do their part” after more than 700 people have been hospitalized with the virus since it arrived in the state.

Dr. Scott Ellner, CEO of Billings Clinic, says the coronavirus pandemic is one of the more challenging situations his team has seen, but he says they’ve got this.

"I won't deny that our caregivers aren't being stretched. They are absolutely being stretched. But collectively they know that this is the right thing for our patients coming from all over Montana and northern Wyoming," Ellner said.

Hospitals statewide say they’ve been able to work within their networks to meet the needs of patients with and without COVID-19.

But they add the recent upward trend in coronavirus case numbers, coupled with people’s flagging adherence to social distancing, mask wearing and hand washing, are concerning.

Data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services updated Oct. 2 show 2,099 of 2,799 staffed inpatient hospital beds are occupied by patients with and without COVID-19. Of 187 staffed adult intensive care unit beds statewide, 141 are occupied. Forty-three of those beds are filled by patients with confirmed and suspected cases of COVID-19. HHS says no statistical analysis has been applied to those numbers to account for non-response from hospitals or missing data.

Dr. Shelly Harkins, Chief Medical Officer at St. Peter’s Health in Helena, says while hospitalization rates may seem low now, she’s anticipating an increase soon that could max out St. Peter’s capacity.

"Typically it's a few weeks following an increase in reported cases that we would see hospitalizations," Harkins said during a press conference Wednesday, where state health officials, the governor and hospital administrators urged Montanans to take the virus seriously.

State data show 500 more cases were reported last week than the week prior, building on a curve that’s been trending upward since Labor Day.

Harkins says St. Peter’s is also facing staffing shortages as health care workers themselves are quarantined due to exposure or fall ill.

"When resources are strained at the local health system, all the patients, even those with non-covid medical conditions like heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, many others, they become at risk of being left without adequate services to stay well. It is the morbidity and mortality from all the non-covid related diseases that we are concerned about, too," Harkins says.

Harkins says four people with COVID-19 are hospitalized at St. Peter’s, more than their typical case load since the virus arrived in state.

Ellner says Billings Clinic’s capacity is a fluid number. He said 13 COVID patients are filling half of the downtown hospital’s intensive care unit beds. A total of 48 COVID patients from as far as Wyoming are hospitalized there.

Michael Skehan, St. Vincent Healthcare chief operating officer, said Wednesday the Billings-based hospital is treating 41 COVID-19 patients, with eight in critical care. Skehan says St. Vincent recently pulled in dozens of nurses, technicials and respiratory therapists from sister hospitals in Colorado.

State health officials said Wednesday that Benefis Hospital in Great Falls is at 115 percent capacity, with 37 COVID-19 patients, seven of whom are in intensive care units.

"There's concern that those systems are going to be even further stressed," Jim Murphy, the state's chief epidemiologist, said.

Hospital administrators say they’re building out additional capacity, bringing in nurses and respiratory therapists, and transferring patients to regional partners as needed. Gov. Steve Bullock says the state has a 90-day supply of personal protective equipment available for hospitals and local agencies as needed, and testing is available for people with symptoms, known exposures and congregate care residents.

But Harkins at St. Peter’s in Helena says Montana is only headed into halftime of the pandemic bowl. She says everyone needs to double down on the basics: wash your hands, keep your distance, wear a mask.

"The outcome of covid-19 on our community will have little to do with the virus, and everything to do with our behavior," she said.

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