Valley Journal
Valley Journal

Local hospitals feel affects of COVID surge

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The state’s healthcare providers are reeling from a surge in COVID-19 not seen since last fall, leading Governor Greg Gianforte to dispatch the National Guard to 11 Montana hospitals in the past two weeks, including those in Missoula, Whitefish, Plains and Kalispell.

On Sept. 22 (the last date info was available before deadline), Lake County Public Health’s Facebook page was showing 374 active cases, up 39 from the day before. The total of COVID-related mortalities rose to 47 last week with the death of man in his 40s.    

As major hospitals across the state report shortages of beds, staffing and supplies due to the COVID surge, local hospitals are feeling the impacts as well. Both St. Luke Community Hospital in Ronan and Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Polson have reinstated their COVID units, and each reports an uptick in COVID-positive patients requiring hospitalization and treatments. 

“Over the last week, I’d say the acuity of patients seems to be increasing,” said Devin Huntley, Chief Operating Officer at Providence St. Joseph. Earlier last week, the hospital had three ICU patients, “which is a high number for us, especially since we are all struggling with staffing at the moment.” 

The statewide increase in cases reverberates locally. “The larger referral hospitals across Montana are overflowing and doing the best they can to take our most acute patients,” says Huntley. “But at times they simply don’t have the beds or staff to accept transfers.” 

For local hospitals that may mean caring for more acute patients in-house instead of sending them to larger facilities, and in some cases, “leaning on families and community partners more, whereas in the past, hospital health systems kind of did it all,” says Erin Rumelhart, the hospital’s director of nursing.

The strain affects staff and patients alike. “Everyone is so stressed, so there’s a fair level of fear and frustration,” she adds. “Our normal processes are no longer normal.”

In light of the strain on healthcare resources, St. Luke Nursing Director Abigail Byers advocates prevention. “Our hospitals that we transfer to are full and taking patients only if they absolutely have to,” she said. “This makes it difficult for people who need emergency attention and don’t have COVID but may have other life-threatening conditions that need to be treated.” 

Byers urges people to “make sure you are staying on top of your chronic conditions, taking your medication appropriately, and going to your health maintenance visits with your primary care provider. These are big things that can be done to help prevent hospital visits.”

Complicating matters further, the highly contagious Delta variant appears to be hitting younger people much harder than its predecessor. The latest case count for Lake County from the Department of Health and Human Services, posted Friday, tallied 31 new cases in ages 40 and under out of a total of 46; 19 were under 20.

“We have been seeing younger patients that don’t have chronic underlying conditions come down with serious cases of COVID,” says Byers. 

Huntley echoed that observation, saying he’s also seen more positive cases in younger patients. Although the CDC is still gathering and analyzing data, statistics from earlier this month demonstrate “the overall case number has been increasing in younger populations, and that this Delta variant is far more contagious than what we’ve experienced last year.” 

He also notes that people who have been vaccinated are still getting COVID. “I can tell you this, however, the people that are vaccinated that are contracting the virus are far less acutely ill than those that haven’t been vaccinated.” 

These observations concur with CDC data, released in late August, showing that unvaccinated people are almost 5 times more likely to be infected with COVID 19 than their vaccinated counterparts, and 29 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID than those who are fully vaccinated.

In Montana, 1,095 people were hospitalized with COVID between July 17 and Sept. 10. Of those, 83% were unvaccinated; and of the 130 COVID-related deaths that occurred during that period, 73% were unvaccinated.

This research backs up the plea made by healthcare providers and infectious disease experts since last spring for people to get vaccinated and adhere to measures recommended by the CDC: mask up indoors and practice hand hygiene and social distancing. 

Despite all the obstacles facing healthcare workers these days, Huntley sees some silver linings. Among them, “cooperation and collaboration between all of the healthcare providers in Lake County is without a doubt at an all-time high.” 

He also believes his staff has risen to the challenges, “helping each other in ways I never imagined possible.” That teamwork helped earn St. Joseph the Leadership in Quality and Safety Award from the Montana Hospital Association last week. 

“Even in the midst of this latest COVID surge, we continue to provide extraordinary care to those that come to us seeking solace,” he says. 

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