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Benefis CMO: Montana in public health crisis


Last updated 10/16/2020 at 12:43pm

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said Thursday said he wants to stress just how hard people are working in Montana to keep the virus that causes COVID-19 under control and deal with the recent surge in cases and how they need everyone's help.

"Our universities, our local public health departments and our health care workers are stepping up in incredible ways right now to do everything that we can to keep combating this virus," Bullock said. "But they will be much more successful if all Montana's are playing on the same team. Local public health officers can't do their job, which is to keep Montanans safe from the spread of communicable disease, if businesses aren't following the same rules or Montanans are disregarding basic preventative measures. ER doctors and nurses can't do their job, which is to provide the best care possible, if this disease continues to spread at a significant and indeed alarming rate."

Public health crisis

Benefis Health Systems Chief Medical Officer Dr. Bridget Brennan said she wanted to share her experience as a health care worker in the midst of Montana's recent rise in hospitalizations.

"I will put this very simply; we are experiencing a public health crisis," Brennan said. "The number of positive cases is rising so quickly that it is threatening to overwhelm the health care resources here in the state."

She said Montana had been until recently in a uniquely good position even as other parts of the country suffered the strain caused by major outbreaks and many mistakenly took that to mean that the pandemic was not a big deal.

The situation has changed, she said.

She said Benefis has seen an increase in hospitalizations and transfers from other hospitals too full to serve people, and if things don't change quickly that will become more and more common with ICU's unable to take patients at all in some cases.

Brennan said her facility has been running daily conference calls with medical officers from other hospitals around the state to discuss capacity.

She said this will hopefully make it easier to help smaller facilities, but, ultimately, responsibility comes down to Montanans themselves.

"We can only do so much, we have to look to you, to the public, the citizens of Montana, to help us slow the rate of spread," she said. " ... We need your help with the things we know work; wash your hands, don't go to work if you're sick, avoid large gatherings, keep your distance and when you can't, wear a mask. We know these things work.

"... This is not a political issue, this is a personal responsibility issue, and I think if we all approached it from that perspective we would have more success in trying to contain the spread of this virus," she added.

She said she hopes people want to help others, but when actions are mandated the mandate becomes the issue, rather than what they are intended to do.

"All I can do is plead with people to be reasonable and to be thoughtful," she said.

Brennan said staffing shortages due to COVID-19 are not happening in the health care settings.

"They're not getting sick at work," she said, "They're getting sick outside of work. Home, grocery stores, gas stations, bars, restaurants."

She said the workers need the support of the community and encouraged those already supporting them to keep doing what they're doing.

"Please continue your support of health care workers across the state," Brennan said. "We need it now more than ever."

Aiding Indian Country, recruiting assistance

Bullock provided an update on the state's ongoing efforts to assist tribal communities in Montana, saying he had a meeting with Montana's tribal leaders Wednesday to inquire about the needs of the reservations and where the gaps that need to be filled by the state are.

He said leaders in these communities said they will continue to require assistance from the state going into cold and flu season, and that the state will provide as much as it can.

He said the state has been looking to fill positions in communities around the state necessary to deal with the pandemic, and most of these positions that have been filled involve assisting the reservations.

Civilian and National Guard members who filled these positions, Bullock said, are contact tracing, delivering supplies, acting as EMS drivers and more.

He said there are still 10 more positions the state is attempting to fill as fast as possible, but they're getting more requests all the time, mostly for registered nurses.

Bullock said this has become difficult as there is already a strain on health care workers, which will only grow as hospitalizations for COVID-19 continue to rise, especially in smaller hospitals.

He said the state, in trying to alleviate this strain on the health care workforce, has exhausted the unemployment and volunteer database, and sent out a request nationwide request to National Guard members with the proper training to come to Montana to help.

However, this request has so far gone unanswered, and Bullock asked that anyone with the necessary training to consider assisting the state if possible.

Testing capacity

Bullock said the state is also looking for ways to boost Montana's testing capacity and keep turnaround time on tests as low as possible.

Montana State University, he said, was awarded a $776,000 research grant from the state to develop a faster saliva-based method of testing to compliment the testing already present to further boost the state's capacity.

"The grant and research validation at Montana State University as well as the testing expansion on our University of Montana campus are certainly examples of utilizing the expertise that exists at our universities to provide Montana solutions to a nationwide, and indeed international pandemic," Bullock said.

Funding for health care facilities

Bullock announced Thursday a second round of CARES Act funding.

He said the state created a 5-million-dollar grant program for public health offices across the state using money from the CARES Act.

He said it's become clear that many organizations require more assistance, so he announced a second round of funding for the program.

He said these funds can be used by public health organizations for contact tracing, infection investigation, and enforcement of local and statewide restrictions.

"These funds will ensure that (public health organizations) are able to hire additional staff if need be, or secure resources to assist with preventative measures," he said.

Bullock said funds must be expended by Dec. 31 of this year and the state will assist departments in using these funds due to the tight deadline.


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