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News >  Pacific NW

Helena hospital critical care at capacity amid virus surge

UPDATED: Thu., Sept. 16, 2021

By Iris Samuels Associated Press

HELENA – A hospital in Helena was forced to implement crisis standards of care amid a surge in COVID-19 patients, hospital officials said Thursday.

Critical care resources are at maximum capacity at St. Peter’s Health hospital. Crisis standards of care are implemented when hospital resources are not sufficient to provide full care to all patients in the facility. Under such conditions, care providers must sometimes choose how to allocate scarce resources including medications and beds.

St. Peter’s Health chief medical officer Dr. Shelly Harkins said the constraints in the hospital are worse than what was seen earlier in the pandemic.

“For the first time in my career, we are at the point where not every patient in need will get the care that we might wish we could give,” Harkins said. “By almost every single measure, we are in a far worse position than we ever were in the winter of 2020, during our first surge.”

The hospital’s intensive care unit, advanced medical unit and morgue are full. A freezer truck in the parking lot of the hospital will be used because the morgue remains full.

Crisis standards of care can impact everyone, not just COVID-19 patients, Harkins said.

Harkins issued a plea on Thursday for more people in the community to get vaccinated and take precautions to limit the spread of the virus such as wearing a mask in closed spaces as hospitals across Montana and in neighboring states are facing similar stress.

Hospitals in Utah, Idaho, Washington and Texas have reached out to St. Peter’s Health looking for beds for patients who cannot be served in their home state. The news comes as facilities in Bozeman and Billings said this week that they are nearing the point of having to implement crisis standards of care. In nearby Idaho and Washington, hospitals reported they are rationing care amid the COVID-19 surge.

The hospital in Helena is forced to provide a higher level of care than before because they are unable to transfer sicker patients to larger hospitals as they would typically.

St. Peter’s is also contending with a staffing shortage, with 200 out of the hospital’s 1,700 positions unfilled in the 99-bed facility.

“What is full capacity for us is related to staffing, not so much bed space,” Harkins said.

The facility has submitted a request to the state for support from the National Guard in addressing the COVID-19 surge, Harkins said.

Gov. Greg Gianforte said earlier this week that 17 National Guard soldiers will help address the pandemic in the state, with 10 helping at Billings Clinic and seven helping at the state lab and warehouse in Helena.

Gianforte said Thursday he is reviewing requests for Guard resources from two hospitals in the state.

Montana health officials reported 355 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Thursday. The state has reported an average of more than 800 new cases of the respiratory virus per day in the last seven days, a level last seen in early December.

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