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National Guard, federal personnel assisting KRH with COVID duties

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | November 19, 2020 12:00 AM

Kalispell Regional Healthcare recently became one of a handful of hospitals in the state to receive COVID-19 support from the Montana National Guard and the federal government as the Flathead Valley’s growing caseload strains the local health-care systems.

According to Alex Schwier, spokesperson for the Montana State Emergency Coordination Center, seven soldiers and airmen arrived on Nov. 7 to help health-care workers with non-medical tasks.

Those individuals were more recently joined by five medical professionals from the U.S. Public Health Service, who were deployed to the area after Kalispell Regional Medical Center and the state reached out to U.S. Health and Human Services for assistance. According to Schwier, the team consists of four registered nurses with surgical and intensive care unit experience, one environmental safety officer and one physician.

The medical professionals have spent the majority of their time helping in the Brendan House, which is Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s long-term care facility. According to Brendan House information, 56 residents at the facility had tested positive for the virus as of Tuesday. That’s up from 40 positives that were announced last Monday. One of the positive residents was admitted to inpatient care at the hospital.

Kalispell Regional has also hired traveling health-care professionals to combat the hospital’s ongoing staffing shortage that has occurred as a result of individuals having to quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19 or after coming in close contact with a known positive. In addition, hospital leaders have asked Kalispell Regional staff to pick up shifts until their colleagues can return to work.

The hospital’s temporary decrease in staff was mentioned briefly by Gov. Steve Bullock during a news conference Tuesday when he stressed Kalispell Regional was down 70 staff due to the virus.

THE HELPING hands come as Flathead County rounds into yet another week with local health-care systems critical capacity. According to capacity indicators released by the Flathead City-County Health Department, systems have been in the red since mid-September.

The health department considers “critical” to be when 15 or more individuals are hospitalized for COVID-19-related complications, but daily numbers indicate that total has ranged from 20 to more than 30 individuals for the past several weeks.

Kalispell Regional has a dedicated COVID-19 unit with 12 beds, which sits adjacent to a 16-bed unit that officials have said would be used when the COVID unit is full. Based on recent daily hospitalization numbers, those two areas have been at or near capacity for some time now.

The hospital also has a temporary 100-bed alternative care facility located on the undeveloped third floor of Montana Children’s. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed construction on the facility in late May.

Should the hospital experience a large enough surge in COVID-19 patients, the temporary facility will be used to house negative patients that are in need of care beyond the COVID-19 arena. At this time, it is unclear whether the facility will be utilized in the near future or if there is enough staff available to open the alternative care unit.

On Wednesday, Montana’s COVID-19 Task Force reported 129 new cases in Flathead County, bringing the area’s active case count to 1,804. Cumulatively, Flathead County has reported the third-highest number of cases since the start of the pandemic at 5,373 cases.

So far, Montana has experienced 561 COVID-19-related fatalities, with 27 of those occurring in Flathead County. The majority of the area’s deaths are associated with outbreaks in long-term care facilities.

HEALTH OFFICIALS are urging the public to do their part in slowing the spread of the virus by wearing masks while in public, practicing social distancing and sanitizing frequently. And with the holidays around the corner, the health department has recommended individuals take extra precautions and make adjustments to planned gatherings.

“The holidays are a time when many families come together to celebrate, but we may need to alter our usual celebrations to keep our families and community healthy,” Interim Health Officer Tamalee St. James Robinson said in a prepared statement.

According to a Wednesday press release from the health department, individuals should not host or participate in in-person gatherings if he or she has been diagnosed with COVID-19, is experiencing symptoms, is waiting on test results, may have been exposed to a known positive or is at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

Also on the topic of holiday gatherings, health officials recommend limiting dinners to the number of individuals in one’s household, shopping online for the holiday rush as opposed to in-person, and other measures.

Reporter Kianna Gardner can be reached at 748-4407 or kgardner@dailyinterlake.com