Montana Physicians Plead for Adherence to Wearing Facemasks, Other Precautions

Rising cases beginning to strain hospitals across state; KRH recently had 19 COVID patients, most since pandemic started

By Myers Reece
Clinical staff clean equipment at Kalispell Regional Medical Center on July 31, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Leading doctors at hospitals across Montana are sounding the alarm over rising COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths as the state heads into flu season.

Those medicals professionals, as well as Dr. Deborah Birx, the Trump administration’s coronavirus response coordinator, have pinpointed Flathead County as one of the state’s areas of foremost concern.

Their collective plea is straightforward: wear a mask, social distance, avoid large gatherings, wash hands, stay home if you’re sick and take the virus seriously, in order to the re-flatten the curve, protect vulnerable residents and keep businesses open.

That message is the same as it’s been for months, but it has grown more urgent, as demonstrated by a Sept. 30 press conference in which physicians and public-health officials stressed that public commitment to those precautions is the critical factor in controlling COVID-19 in Montana.

“The outcome of COVID-19 in our community will have little to do with the virus and everything to do with our behavior,” Dr. Shelly Harkins, chief medical officer at St. Peter’s Health in Helena, said during the press conference.

Harkins, noting that her son plays football, compared the state’s current circumstances to a team heading into halftime having lost its lead.

“Adjustments are critical,” she said. “We have to change our course.”

Medical officials described the potential for COVID-caused strains on hospital capacity and resources to accelerate in the coming weeks, which Dr. Greg Holzman, state medical officer, called “very concerning” heading into flu season. As of Oct. 5, the virus had killed 190 Montanans.

Harkins noted that COVID-19 also causes staff shortages due to employees contracting the virus and others going into quarantine, and described a domino effect on other services due to strained resources.

“COVID affects all patients, not just those with the disease,” she said. “We have to re-flatten the curve.”

There were recently 19 COVID patients hospitalized at Kalispell Regional Healthcare, the highest total since the pandemic began. It surpassed the original capacity of the hospital’s dedicated COVID unit, which had 12 beds but has been expanded.

“It’s concerning; I’ll be honest,” KRH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Doug Nelson said of the recent surge in COVID-19.

While KRH has options to accommodate more patients beyond the dedicated unit, Nelson points out that beds taken up by COVID patients are no longer available for other patients. The hospital is also prioritizing and at times limiting elective procedures to control capacity.

“Our hospital has been busy, especially with those extra COVID patients,” Nelson said last week.

Echoing Harkins, Nelson said “staffing has been a challenge,” due to employees contracting the virus in the community, necessitating both isolation of infected staff and quarantine of staff contacts.

Nelson understands “people are tired of the pandemic, but being tired of it doesn’t make it go away.” He and “every physician I know are big advocates” of daily health precautions, including face coverings.

“I’m disappointed that there isn’t more adherence to those simple health precautions,” he said.

With flu season arriving, Nelson is asking people to routinely practice those measures, which “can save your own life and the lives around you.”

“My message to the community would be to wear a mask, sanitize, wash your hands, socially distance and stay home if you’re sick,” he said. “And get your flu shot.”

“I know people in the Flathead Valley are good people and smart people and want to do the right thing,” he added. “I would make a plea to the Flathead Valley to do these simple things. If we could all do them consistently, we could make this go away over time and greatly decrease the suffering and death that’s going to occur otherwise.”

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