Montana deploys 70 guardsmen to hospitals as COVID-19 cases climb

‘The best long-term solution to this crisis is for Montanans … to get vaccinated’

By: - September 21, 2021 6:36 pm

Kyle Austin, a pharmacist who started a mobile clinic during the pandemic, administered 20 covid vaccines on a recent Saturday in Virginia City, Montana, a town of roughly 120 year-round residents. His business model is to collect vaccine stragglers as he makes a circuit through Montana. (Katheryn Houghton/KHN)

Gov. Greg Gianforte on Tuesday announced a series of Montana National Guard deployments to hospitals across the state to address an overburdened nursing labor force and skyrocketing COVID-19 case numbers — Montana twice led the nation in per-capita COVID case count increase last week, and health officials are warning that the delta variant-driven pandemic is the most devastating it’s been in months.

The governor’s office said 70 national guardsmen would be deployed to provide support, COVID testing and general non-medical assistance, fulfilling six requests from hospitals in Helena, Billings, Butte, Missoula and Bozeman.

Gianforte reiterated his promise not to mandate vaccines, but in a statement encouraged Montanans to get the shot. Just over half of eligible residents in the state are fully vaccinated, and public health experts say a community needs vaccination rates in excess of 75 percent to achieve herd immunity. Montana has a unique vaccine mandate ban on the books, making it the only state to prevent private employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations.

“While these Guardsmen will help ease the heavy burden our frontline health workers face, the best long-term solution to this crisis is for Montanans to talk with their doctor or pharmacist and get vaccinated,” Gianforte said in a statement. “While we will not mandate them, vaccines are safe, they work, and they can save your life.”

The state reported 1,181 new cases Tuesday, putting the seven-day average for new cases at 1,249.

That rolling average has now sat above 1,200 for three straight days, something that the state hasn’t seen since Nov. 20 to Nov. 22, 2020, according to a Daily Montanan analysis. The state Department of Public Health and Human Services also reported 14 new deaths.

Yellowstone County is at the top of the heap with 2,197 new cases, followed by Missoula, Flathead and Cascade counties.

Hospitals across the state are struggling to keep beds free and meet the rising demand for treatment while providing the same level of service to patients who aren’t hospitalized for COVID. St. Peter’s Health in Helena last week announced that it was adopting crisis standards of care, meaning it will effectively have to triage care; Billings Clinic, the state’s largest hospital, has faced a special kind of onslaught, with 14 COVID patients dying there in the last week alone. The governor’s office said Tuesday it expects to receive and fulfill more formal requests for National Guard assistance from hospitals moving forward.

Democratic legislative leadership wrote to Gianforte this week, calling on him to continue assigning guardsmen to hospitals and to take steps to address nursing shortages. Several hospitals are struggling to hire for both medical and support positions, and the cost to hire travel nurses, who are increasingly needed to meet the demand, has gone up.

House Minority Leader Kim Abbott and Senate Minority Leader Jill Cohenour asked Gianforte in their letter to provide bonus incentive pay for healthcare workers using federal COVID aid dollars and to secure a statewide contract with temporary nursing staffing agencies to ensure a more efficient distribution of resources.

“You are leading our state through the worst part of the COVID-19 pandemic so far,” the lawmakers wrote. “We firmly believe that by taking the actions we describe, you can ease some of the burden on our frontline caregivers to ensure that our healthcare system stays strong — and that our neighbors get the care they need.”

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.