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Local health care system nears tipping point in latest COVID surge

Drive-thru Covid-19 vaccine clinic

A nurse holds a dose of Moderna vaccine and an alcohol swab at a drive-thru COVID-19 vaccination clinic for health care workers at the Lewis and Clark County Fairgrounds in this 2020 file photo.

The severity of COVID-19 cases in Lewis and Clark County has increased since the first wave of infections and multiple people have died this week from the disease.

St. Peter's Health spokeswoman Kathryn Gallagher confirmed Thursday that "several people passed due to complications related to COVID-19 this week." Gallagher did not provide an exact number.

Additionally, she said "anecdotally, we are seeing sicker patients."

"It's a reminder to the community that we are very much still in this pandemic," Gallagher said. "These are people, not statistics. These are lives, local lives."

Local health care personnel have been sounding the alarm in recent weeks over the resurgence in COVID-19 cases.

More than 500 St. Peter's personnel signed their names to a social media post Wednesday pleading with the community to get vaccinated.

"We need your help, again, Montana," the Facebook post states. "The unvaccinated population leaves thousands of people — including children — more vulnerable to the virus. Continued spread encourages dangerous mutations like we’re seeing with the much more contagious Delta variant, which is causing a surge of hospitalizations and deaths among the unvaccinated across our country. It is not uncommon recently at St. Peter’s to have half, or more than half of our ICU beds filled with people experiencing complications from the virus, and a quarter of our medical floor beds."

Lewis and Clark County has reported an average of more than 26 new COVID-19 cases per day over the last seven days, including 38 Wednesday alone.

In total there are 263 active cases in the county.

“We are what we consider in the red, as far as health care resources in Helena,” President and Chief Medical Officer of St. Peter’s Health Dr. Shelly Harkins recently told the Independent Record. “We are experiencing COVID-2.0, another surge of the pandemic, another wave. Call it what you will. But we are experiencing it again. It is here in full force, make no make mistake about it.”

Currently, 14 patients are hospitalized at St. Peter's with COVID-19.

Gallagher said there are "some pretty young patients in the (intensive care unit)" and that some of those hospitalized are fully vaccinated individuals.

She stressed that such breakthrough cases were anticipated, the vast majority of local breakthrough cases do not require hospitalization and that the vaccine is largely effective at preventing severe illness.

"It serves as a reminder that other precautions are still very important," Gallagher said.

Lewis and Clark Public Health Disease Control and Prevention Division Administrator Laurel Riek agreed. The county health department has labeled the community as one with a high rate of transmission since about early August.

"If there is a high rate of transmission in the community, there is a good chance you're going to come across someone with COVID," Riek said in an interview Thursday.

Riek said as a result anyone entering a public indoor space should wear a mask over their nose and mouth and maintain at least six feet of distance between themselves and others.

Both St. Peter's Health and LCPH are presently seeing a tremendous strain on their employees.

Riek said the local health department is scrambling to hire contact tracers, isolation and quarantine officers as well as registered nurses.

"With the number of cases rolling in, our public health nurses are overwhelmed," she said. "It's just a huge workload right now."

St. Peter's is no different.

"It's been really hard on our staff," Gallagher said, adding that most COVID patients start on the medical floor and move to higher levels of care as the disease takes hold. "Each case can span weeks of care."

She said staffing has been the hospital's chief concern throughout the pandemic. Even the hospital's cafeteria has had to close early like many local restaurants because of a shortage of workers.

"We need people," she said.

While all St. Peter's services are currently open, surgery scheduling is "day-to-day," according to Gallagher.

"Canceling surgeries is not something we want to do, but it's touch-and-go," she said.

The hospital has placed limitations on visitors in recent weeks. Patients are allowed one non-symptomatic, masked visitor. Gallagher urged those planning to visit a patient review the policies listed on the hospital's website.

Riek and Gallagher said the local vaccination planning team has begun meeting regularly to discuss the eventual rollout of a COVID-19 booster. Both were confident that the infrastructure initially put in place in Lewis and Clark County to handle vaccinations is capable of handling a round of booster shots once approved by the Food and Drug Administration, but that the timeline and order in which it is distributed have yet to be determined.

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Local Government and Crime Reporter

Nolan Lister is a reporter at the Helena Independent Record with an emphasis on local government and crime.

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