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Latest Flathead Covid surge strains hospital, health department

by KIANNA GARDNER
Daily Inter Lake | August 25, 2021 2:45 PM

Flathead County continues to see an uptick in Covid-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths. The county had 690 active cases on Wednesday — the highest number the area has seen since February, according to local health officials.

Health Officer Joe Russell said the spike is burdening the valley's health-care system, which already has been bogged down in recent months by patients seeking emergency services unrelated to Covid.

"The increasing number of positive cases is concerning, and we are already seeing strains on our health-care system and public health staff," Russell said in a statement.

Four more deaths have been reported in the Flathead in the last week, bringing the total death toll of the disease in the county to 120 people. The virus has killed at least 1,773 people across Montana, according to state data.

Russell anticipates it will be at least three to four weeks before the county sees another downward turn in case numbers and hospitalizations.

"I just don't know what to do," he said. "Our vaccination numbers need to come up."

ON TUESDAY Logan Health Medical Center was treating 41 patients who had been admitted for complications of Covid. Previously, the most Covid patients the hospital treated at one time was 38, at the height of the pandemic in November 2020.

Logan Health spokesman Chris Leopold said the number of Covid patients fluctuates daily. The hospital had 37 such patients at the start of this week, and 31 on Wednesday.

Logan Health has a 12-bed unit dedicated for Covid patients that has been expanded off and on throughout the pandemic into adjacent areas, at some points reaching up to 29 beds. Officials haven't disclosed how many Covid patients the hospital is capable of treating, but have said "contingency plans" are in place should hospitalizations continue to climb.

Dr. Doug Nelson, Logan Health's chief medical officer, said in a recent interview that leaders are "carefully watching" overall hospital capacity when making adjustments, not just capacity in the Covid unit.

Logan Health Medical Center has 124 adult acute-care beds, which includes the intensive-care unit, intermediate care, oncology, surgical departments and more. Leopold said at least 90% of those beds have been occupied consistently throughout the summer with a combination of trauma and Covid patients.

Early last week, Logan Health surpassed that capacity by 3% — an event that prompted the hospital to board patients in other nearby facilities. Outside the primary hospital in Kalispell, Logan Health has an additional 199 beds throughout its other facilities, including Logan Health Children's, Logan Health Newman Center and the Brendan House.

As of Wednesday, 75% of the system's 323 beds were occupied, up from roughly 50% two weeks ago. Leopold emphasized that number, which accounts for all inpatient activity, fluctuates daily.

UNVACCINATED PEOPLE consistently account for at least 90% of Logan Covid hospitalizations at Logan Health, Leopold said. Only about 41% of eligible Flathead County residents are fully immunized, according to state data.

Local health-care leaders anticipate the county's hospitalization rate will continue to rise in the coming weeks as the highly infectious delta variant of the virus continues to circulate throughout the valley.

The Flathead City-County Health Department has urged the community to take personal action to mitigate the spread of the virus and help protect vulnerable people, including older adults, children and those with underlying health conditions. Vaccines are available for people ages 12 and older at the health department and local clinics and pharmacies. Appointments can be scheduled at flatheadhealth.org.

"We strongly encourage our community to follow public health guidance and receive a safe and effective Covid-19 vaccine," Russell said. "We have the tools to slow the spread of this virus. It is up to each individual to do their part."

The Food and Drug Administration gave full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday after millions of Americans received the vaccine while it was authorized for emergency use. Health experts, including Russell, hope the long-awaited stamp of approval will encourage more people to get their shots.

"While this and other vaccines have met the FDA's rigorous, scientific standards for emergency use authorization, as the first FDA-approved Covid-19 vaccine, the public can be very confident that this vaccine meets the high standards for safety effectiveness, and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product," acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock said in a statement this week.

In addition to boosting the local vaccination rate, the health department recommends social distancing, hand hygiene and surface sanitation procedures. Anyone who feels sick should stay away from others, follow isolation procedures recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and seek Covid testing.

Reporter Kianna Gardner may be reached at kgardner@dailyinterlake.com. Assistant editor Chad Sokol contributed to this report.