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Helena hospital has a record high of 41 COVID patients
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Helena hospital has a record high of 41 COVID patients

COVID-19 stressing Montana hospital system (copy)

Intensive care unit nurses discuss a patient’s medications in September inside St. Peter’s Heath in Helena.

St. Peter's Health said it has reached an "unfortunate milestone" in the COVID-19 pandemic as 41 patients were hospitalized with the disease as of Friday morning, the highest number to date.

This number accounts for about 50% of the regional medical center’s acute medical care inpatient beds. St. Peter's officials do not believe the surge at the hospital is at its peak, as hospitalizations and deaths associated with COVID-19 typically lag case reporting by two to three weeks.

Lewis and Clark County reported high case numbers this week, with Tuesday's total of 132 new cases representing the highest since December 2020, St. Peter’s officials said in a news release. The state of Montana reported 1,315 new cases of coronavirus on Friday, making for a total of 158,680 confirmed reports of the respiratory illness. Of those, 144,062 people have recovered and 2,079 have died.

St. Peter’s said it is taking more action to ensure it can continue providing life-saving care to the community.

That action includes postponing and rescheduling surgeries that require an inpatient bed and setting up a tent outside the emergency department for waiting or triage.

Officials said the operating room will remain open for some outpatient and all emergency procedures. Postponements will be reevaluated often. Patients who this will impact will be contacted by their surgeon's office.

This will not impact all procedures at this time, officials said. 

People will see a large tent outside the emergency department and there will be minimal impact to parking. This tent will not be in use at all times, only as needed based on real-time volume.

"We are doing absolutely all we can, pulling out all stops to ensure we can continue to care for our community, but we need your help," Dr. Shelly Harkins, St. Peter's Health chief medical officer and president of Regional Medical Center, said in the news release. "As we've said over and over again, seek medical care if you need it. It is safe. But we are telling you that your experience may be different regardless of why you're seeking care. The community needs to understand that this surge has implications for our entire health system. Do not be surprised."

The hospital said it will also reassign providers and staff from its outpatient clinics to provide hospital-based care. Patients will be contacted if appointments need to be rescheduled. People are asked to not call to cancel appointments, and do not hesitate to call and schedule an appointment. This will only impact some clinics temporarily. 

Hospital officials said they plan to extend and expand their partnership with the Montana National Guard to help with staffing needs as well as transitioning areas of the hospital used for outpatient procedures into inpatient rooms to prepare for more patients. Nine members of the Montana National Guard arrived Sept. 24 at St. Peter’s Health to help care for patients.

Harkins said this surge is more challenging for the health care system than the first surge last fall in terms of staffing, bed availability and patient acuity.

"We believe this is because the Delta variant is more aggressive than previously dominant variants, and there are very few risk mitigation measures in place in the community," she said in the news release. "Outside our walls, life looks pretty 'normal,' but these are not normal times no matter how much we all wish they were. We can't ignore or argue our way out of this pandemic." 

St. Peter's leaders "implore" the community to take action to slow the spread.

"What we are seeing is tragic and unprecedented. There is no other way to describe it," St. Peter's Interim Chief Nursing Officer Kari Koehler said in the news release.  

St. Peter's begs the public to take precautions like masking indoors in public, staying home when sick and "keeping your world as small as possible during this surge." 

Harkins said vaccination remains the best tool to fight the pandemic, "save lives and ensure your local hospital can sustain all operations."

Koehler said staff is "hurting in all the ways one can feel pain - physically and psychologically."

"We are here to care for our community, and we are committed to caring for patients with COVID-19 and those without, but we need your help," she said. "We need you to help us get through this together by choosing kindness, taking all the precautions we've talked about for well over a year, supporting our staff and getting fully vaccinated if you're eligible."

Assistant editor Phil Drake can be reached at 406-231-9021.


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