Delta variant is in almost every county as Gianforte announces more Guardsmen deployments

The state will use a limited number of open beds at Fort Harrison to treat COVID-19 patients

By: - September 24, 2021 4:09 pm

Gov. Greg Gianforte receives a shot of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine from pharmacist Drew Garton on Thursday, April 1, 2021 at a Walgreen’s pharmacy in Helena, Mont. “I just got my first shot and I feel great,: Gianforte said to members of the press after. “I would encourage all other Montanans to go out and get theirs. It’s the only path forward.”

The governor’s office announced on Friday that it is sending 39 national guardsmen to hospitals in Kalispell, Whitefish, Livingston and Plains, bringing the total number of guardsmen deployed to help hospitals with COVID-19 to 139 since September 15.

“To ease the load our civilian soldiers and airmen carry as they support the state, we’re fulfilling formal requests for Guard resources with Guardsmen residing in or near their communities, so they can sleep in their own beds at night as they assist hospitals in their COVID response,” Gianforte said in a release announcing the most recent deployments. “Our entire state thanks them for their continued service and sacrifice.”

Eight of 10 Montana hospitals reported being at more than 70 percent capacity on Monday, with four of the eight reporting more than 90 percent capacity, according to a report Wednesday from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. The four were Benefis in Great Falls, Bozeman Health Deaconess, Kalispell Regional Medical Center and St. Peter’s Health in Helena.

Also, to help ease the burden on hospitals, the state reached an agreement with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use open beds at the Fort Harrison VA Medical center to treat COVID-19 patients. On Friday, FEMA approved the agreement to use up to six beds by any eligible facility in the state in need of additional capacity.

The beds will be used to care for critical and non-critical COVID-19 positive and non-COVID positive patients who are not otherwise eligible to receive care from the VA, the release said. Last week, Gianforte announced another emergency rule waiving regulations to make it easier for hospitals to transfer patients.

“With more hospital beds available, hospitals now have another tool in their toolbox to treat Montanans in need of care as their systems are strained,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a news release announcing the agreement. “While this is another important tool, the best solution to this crisis remains Montanans talking with their doctor or pharmacist and getting vaccinated against COVID-19. We will not mandate vaccination in Montana, but these vaccines are safe, they work, and they can save your life.”

Montana has so far lagged on vaccinations, with only 52 percent of eligible Montanans fully vaccinated as of Friday.

As hospitals fill, cases continue to increase with the state recording 1,038 new cases on Friday, putting the seven-day average for new cases at 1,247, according to Daily Montanan analysis. The state also reported fifteen deaths and 14 new active hospitalizations on Friday.

A COVID-19 variant report released by the Department of Public Health and Human Services earlier this week showed the 166 specimens collected between September 1 and September 21 were delta. As of September 21, Cascade County led the state, recording 128 cases of the Delta variant. The report also said from February 15 to September 21, 5,131 vaccinated Montanans had been infected with COVID-19, with 308 hospitalizations and 57 deaths. Of those cases, many were elderly and/or suffered from an underlying condition that would make them more likely to be infected. Chouteau, Pondera and Stillwater are the only counties left in Montana to yet record a case of the delta variant, according to the report.

But as cases rise, health officials are hoping the updated Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance expanding eligibility for the Pfizer booster shot to people 65 and older, long-term care facility residents, and others ages 50 to 64 with underlying conditions including cancer, diabetes, asthma, HIV infection and heart disease and being overweight or obese will help manage the newest surge.

People aged 18–49 with underlying medical conditions also may receive a booster shot based on their individual benefits and risks. Others aged 18-64 who are at increased risk for COVID-19 exposure and transmission because of occupational or institutional settings may receive a booster shot based on their individual benefits and risks. Previously the third dose was only available to specific immunocompromised individuals, a group that about 22,000 Montanans fit into, according to DPPHS.

“We are pleased that the CDC has authorized another layer of protection in the form of booster vaccines for those who received the Pfizer COVID-19 shot,” said John Felton, Yellowstone County health officer and RiverStone Health president and CEO, in an email. “However, this booster alone will not stop the pandemic. A great number of people have not yet received their first or second COVID-19 vaccination and we urge everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated, to do so. The surest and fastest way to get on the other side of the pandemic is through vaccination.  Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 also is a sign of respect for public health and healthcare professionals who have selflessly worked to keep people safe throughout the pandemic.”

As of Friday, the governor has fulfilled 12 formal requests from hospitals asking for national guard support:

  • September 15, St. Peter’s Health in Helena submitted a formal request for 10 Guard. This request was fulfilled on September 24 with 10 Guard.
  • September 15, Billings Clinic in Billings submitted a second formal request for 10 additional Guard. This request was fulfilled on September 24 with 10 Guard.
  • September 15, St. James Healthcare in Butte submitted a formal request for six Guard. This request will be fulfilled with six Guard.
  • September 17, St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings submitted a formal request for 10 Guard. This request was fulfilled on September 22 with 10 Guard.
  • September 17, Missoula County submitted a formal request for 24 Guard. This request was fulfilled on September 24 with 24 Guard.
  • September 20, Bozeman Health in Bozeman submitted a formal request for 10 Guard. This request will be fulfilled with 10 Guard.
  • September 22, Benefis Health System in Great Falls submitted a formal request for 20 Guard. This request will be fulfilled with 20 Guard.
  • September 24, Livingston HealthCare in Livingston submitted a formal request for six Guard. This request will be fulfilled with six Guard.
  • September 24, Logan Health in Kalispell submitted a formal request for 25 Guard. This request will be fulfilled with 25 Guard.
  • September 24, Logan Health Whitefish submitted a formal request for two Guard. This request will be fulfilled with two Guard.
  • September 24, Clark Fork Valley Hospital in Plains submitted a formal request for four Guard. This request will be fulfilled with four Guard.

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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .

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