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Gov. calls for medical workers as hospitals fill up

by CHAD SOKOL
Daily Inter Lake | October 15, 2020 3:30 PM

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock on Thursday issued an urgent call for medical workers to join the fight against COVID-19 as hospitals across the state are on the verge of being overwhelmed by a recent surge in coronavirus infections.

During a call with reporters, Bullock said nurses, paramedics, contact tracers and others who want to join or rejoin the state's health-care workforce can do so by contacting the Montana Nurses Association, or by signing up for a "paid volunteering" program through the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.

"We already have strains on our health-care workforce, and that will continue to grow with increasing hospitalizations at our critical-care facilities and our smaller hospitals across the state," Bullock said. The state has 10 pending requests for additional staff on tribal reservations and in other areas, mostly for registered nurses, he said.

Bullock said he requested help from other states in mitigating the virus several weeks ago but has received no response. And he announced a second round of grants for tribes and local public health agencies, funded by the Coronavirus, Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act that Congress passed in March.

"Over the past couple of months, we've delivered personal protective equipment to the tribes hardest hit, such as Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Blackfeet and Fort Peck," he said. "This includes tens of thousands of N95 masks, KN95 masks, gloves, gowns and face shields."

Bullock was joined on the call by Dr. Bridget Brennan, chief medical officer of Benefis Medical Group in Great Falls, who said hospitals need direct assistance but also the cooperation of the public in following public health guidelines.

"I will put this very simply: We are experiencing a public health crisis," Brennan said. "The number of positive COVID cases is rising so quickly that it is threatening to overwhelm the health-care resources here in the state."

Brennan said Montana's health-care system could manage its COVID-19 caseloads with relative ease throughout most of the pandemic, but now it must flatten the infection curve to ensure there are enough available hospital beds.

"Until just recently, the state of Montana really hasn't had that many patients compared to other parts of the country, leading many to believe that this really wasn't such a big deal after all," she said. "Over the last few weeks, that situation has clearly changed, as we have seen drastic increases in the numbers of COVID-positive patients across the entire state."

Montana's COVID-19 mapping website added 735 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and five deaths associated with the illness on Thursday, bringing the statewide total of active infections to 7,849 and the total number of deaths to 230. Flathead County was reported to have 1,264 active cases, behind only Yellowstone County with 1,701.

Brennan urged Montanans to wash their hands, avoid large gatherings, practice social distancing and wear face coverings to slow the spread of the virus until a vaccine is widely available, "so that the number of people who require hospitalization don't get sick all at once and overwhelm the health-care resources."

The pressure also is being felt at Kalispell Regional Medical Center, which recently launched a "Stop the Surge" outreach campaign urging the public to follow those same public health guidelines.

"Like the other hospitals across the state, staffing has been a challenge, but we’re managing," hospital spokeswoman Mellody Sharpton said in an email. "We are here to take care of our patients, first and foremost, so we’re constantly evaluating our current staffing needs and developing creative solutions. We’ve brought in traveling medical workers to help fill in gaps and are rotating staff from other areas to support patient care initiatives."

Kalispell Regional has a total of 192 acute care beds. Twelve of those are in a dedicated COVID-19 unit, and other units can be used to treat the illness if the need arises, Sharpton said. The hospital also has an 18-bed intensive care unit, a six-bed pediatric intensive care unit and a 90-bed alternative care facility at its disposal to treat infections, she said.

The Flathead City-County Health Department on Thursday reported 29 current hospitalizations in the county due to COVID-19.

"It’s important to keep in mind that not all hospitalized patients require intensive care or mechanical ventilation," she said. "Many may receive medical care, medications and some need supplemental oxygen."

Reporter Chad Sokol may be reached at 758-4439 or csokol@dailyinterlake.com.