Omicron Surge Appears to be Waning in Flathead County

Hospitalizations and active cases have fallen after a spike in January

By Mike Kordenbrock
Clinical personnel exits a sectioned-off area of Logan Health dedicated to active COVID-19 patients on July 31, 2020. Beacon file photo

COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have continued to fall recently in Flathead County, where the spread of the omicron variant led to a January spike in hospitalizations that was on par with the Delta surge last fall.

During the Delta surge the Logan Health Medical Center in Kalispell peaked at 56 COVID-19 patients in late October, and continued to see days with patient numbers in the high 40s and in the 50s through early November.

At one point in late January as omicron became the dominant variant in Montana the hospital reached 51 COVID-19 hospitalizations. A week later the hospital had about 40 COVID-19 patients. Since the end of January the hospital has consistently had fewer than 40 patients.

As of Feb. 16 Flathead County had 428 active cases, compared to late January when Health Officer Joe Russell had estimated there to be 3,000 active cases in Flathead County

The situation has improved to the extent that the COVID-19 intensive care unit at Logan Health Medical Center in Kalispell was closed effective Feb. 14. The same unit had been closed towards the end of December but was then reopened, according to Dr. Cory Short, a hospitalist and the executive physician for Logan Health’s acute service care line. Of the 26 COVID-19 patients at the hospital on Feb. 17 three of them were receiving intensive care unit treatment.

“We’re able to accommodate the needs of those patients in our normal medical ICU with the isolation room with PPE (personal protective equipment) with the nursing staff up there,” Short said.

Most of the people receiving treatment for COVID-19 at the hospital are unvaccinated, which is in keeping with overall trends in the state. The vaccination rate in Flathead County recently increased by a full percentage point for the first time since the end of December. Currently 45% of eligible Flathead County residents are considered vaccinated against COVID-19.

Generally speaking, Short said that the relatively low oxygen needs of recent patients was “encouraging.” Medical experts believe that the omicron variant generally causes less severe illness in people who have either been vaccinated or have prior COVID-19 infection. Short said that of the more than 20 COVID-19 patients at the hospital 17 were older than 60. Three patients were under the age of 18, Short said.

Some of the COVID-19 hospitalizations have been what Short called incidental findings, meaning people who came in for other reasons but went on to test positive for COVID-19. Short said that in some instances there’s likely little connection between the positive test and whatever brought a person to the hospital, but that there are also cases where chronic underlying illness may have been exacerbated by a previously unknown COVID-19 infection.

The hospital had used up its last order of Regeneron in late January because the monoclonal antibody was ineffective against the omicron variant.  The availability of certain monoclonal antibodies with some efficacy against the omicron variant has improved, but supplies are still limited.

“I wouldn’t say supplies are robust, but there has been more availability,” Short said.

He also said the hospital’s pharmacy has received doses of two antiviral pills for COVID-19, Molnuprovir and Paxlovid, which are available for patients who meet certain criteria.

There had been some discussion about setting up an outpatient infusion center to administer the antiviral drug remdesivir, but so far that has not happened.

As for the near-term outlook, Short said he is cautiously optimistic, and that he will be watching to see if the virus continues to mutate into less virulent strains, which could lead to the disease becoming endemic and a less disruptive part of daily life.

“You know, if you had asked me back in March of 2020 if we would still be talking about coronavirus and the pandemic and whatnot in February 2022, I would have had my doubts,” Short said. “I think it’s reassuring the trends that we’re seeing, but we’ve just got to remain vigilant for any potential next wave.”

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