Helena Hospital Critical Care at Capacity Amid Virus Surge

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

By Associated Press
Staff prepare COVID-19 vaccines for veterans at the Flathead County Fairgrounds in Kalispell on Feb. 3, 2021. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

HELENA — Critical care resources are at maximum capacity at St. Peter’s Health hospital in Helena amid a surge in COVID-19 patients, pushing the hospital to implement crisis standards of care, hospital officials said Thursday.

Crisis standards of care are implemented when the hospital resources are not sufficient to provide full care to all patients in the facility.

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 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. And 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 over 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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