Flathead County Reports Nine COVID-19 Deaths in Two Weeks

Deaths have included people in their 30s and 40s; hospitals across Montana are reporting younger COVID-19 patients

By Myers Reece
COVID-19 vaccines are prepared for administration. Beacon File Photo

Nine COVID-19 deaths have occurred in the last two weeks in Flathead County, giving the county 25 deaths since Aug. 1 and 136 overall since the pandemic began.

In addition to the more common higher age ranges, the deaths have also included people in their 30s and 40s. All were unvaccinated, according to the Flathead City-County Health Department.

“We’ve had about one a day the last two weeks,” Flathead Health Officer Joe Russell said on Friday.

Flathead County has reported more than 100 new COVID-19 cases each day this week, including a high of 158 on Tuesday. As of Friday, the county had 1,042 active cases.

The county has also had at least 35 COVID-19 hospitalizations every day the last two weeks, at times exceeding 40. Up until the current surge, the county’s single-day pandemic high for hospitalizations was 39 on Nov. 30 of last year, but that number has recently been surpassed a number of times.

According to Logan Health’s most recent weekly status report on Sept. 15, which reflects a snapshot of a specific time when the count was recorded, 30 of the 37 COVID-19 patients were unvaccinated, while all nine ICU and four ventilator patients were unvaccinated.

Since Logan Health launched its census report on Sept. 1, unvaccinated patients have represented 85% of hospitalizations but 100% of ICU and ventilator patients.

“We’re seeing the same trends that everyone else is: the acute illness is happening in unvaccinated individuals,” Russell said.

The National Guard was recently sent to Billings Clinic, where surging COVID-19 hospitalizations are stressing the system’s bed and staff capacity. Similar to Flathead County and elsewhere around the nation, Billings Clinic is seeing lower ages among patients, including some in their 20s, leading a hospital official there to say “young people are fighting for their lives.”

“It’s gotten to the point that we are in a crisis,” Billings Clinic CEO Dr. Scott Ellner told the Billings Gazette. “The patients we’re seeing are not only sicker, they’re younger, we’re being depleted with our workforce, and we’ve lost several people across health care. People are tired and incredibly frustrated. We’re worried that the public doesn’t understand.”

Russell said the age range of hospitalizations and deaths in Flathead County is similarly wide.

“The trends that are being reported nationally are happening here,” he said.

In Helena, St. Peter’s Health has implemented crisis standards of care amid a COVID-19 surge that has pushed critical care resources to maximum capacity.

“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,” Dr. Shelly Harkins, the chief medical officer at St. Peter’s Health, 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.”

Russell is encouraged, however, to see the local vaccination rate continuing to tick up, including 611 first doses and 541 second doses administered, for a total of 1,152 doses, during the week of Aug. 28 through Sept. 3.

Russell said Flathead County is approaching a 44% full immunization rate and half of its eligible population with at least one shot.

“About every week and a half we’re gaining a percentage point,” Russell said. “Next week we’ll likely hit the magical number of 50% of the population of having one dose.”

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