Saturday, November 28, 2020

Montana's health-care system on the brink

by Bob Anez
| November 15, 2020 12:00 AM

Imagine pulling up to your local hospital and finding a “no vacancy” sign. You have COVID and need hospitalization, but no beds are available. Or you are barely able to walk due to intense chronic pain, only to find your hip replacement surgery is canceled because your hospital lacks the bed space or staff to help you.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, health care industry leaders have warned repeatedly about the danger of being “overwhelmed” by the onslaught of COVID cases in hospitals.

Well, that day may have arrived in Montana.

As more and more COVID patients fill a limited supply of beds and tax overworked and diminished hospital staffs, Montanans may already be finding their ability to obtain medical care has become limited.

“We are on the brink of not being able to care for all patients in Montana,” says Dr. Shelly Harkins, president and chief medical officer for St. Peter’s Health in Helena.

That should scare Montanans to our very core.

The Nov. 9 “Hospital Capacity Status Report” from the state Department of Public Health and Human Services demonstrates just how precarious the situation is.

In the past four weeks, the number of hospitalized COVID patients increased 70 percent. At the same time, the percentage of total available beds has decreased by a fourth. The percentage of unfilled beds in intensive care units (ICUs), needed by the sickest COVID patients, has plummeted 42 percent. Hospitals in Great Falls, Billings and Helena had no beds available. Eight of Montana’s 10 largest hospitals had five or fewer ICU beds available.

But shrinking availability of beds is not the only problem. Staffing shortages due to COVID plague hospitals. As the virus spreads in communities, employees miss work because they get infected, had contact with someone who has COVID, need to care for a sick family member, or must tend to children at home due to COVID impacts on schools.

One hospital official estimates at least 50 employees are not available on any given day due to COVID. In addition, the stress of working long hours and dealing with the pressure of treating patients with a deadly disease takes a physical and emotional toll on staff.

Scarce beds and staffing shortages mean non-emergency surgeries are postponed and COVID patients showing up at emergency rooms must wait in ERs or hallways until a bed opens up. Some are sent home, often with oxygen to combat COVID’s assault on the lungs. Sending patients to another hospital isn’t possible because all are running out of room.

Also, hospital officials are dreading a flu season that could ignite even greater demand for beds they don’t have.

Bob Anez lives in Helena.