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Five more virus deaths in the community as St. James grows tight on beds
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Five more virus deaths in the community as St. James grows tight on beds

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Tech lends hospital beds and equipment to St. James for use during the pandemic

Movers roll a hospital bed across Montana Tech campus in this March file photo. The nursing program at Montana Technological University and Highlands College provided 15 hospital beds to St. James Healthcare for use during the coronavirus pandemic in March.

With four new deaths at nursing homes, and another in the community, 25 people have now died of COVID-19 in Butte-Silver Bow County.

Crest Nursing Home is the latest long-term care facility to suffer a COVID-19 outbreak. Recently, 16 residents and 21 staff members tested positive for the virus, and three residents have died.

“Crest staff have taken every measure to prevent the virus from entering the facility, and they are managing now in very difficult circumstances,” Butte-Silver Bow County Health Officer Karen Sullivan said.

At each of the care homes to undergo major outbreaks, staff and administration have done everything in their power to contain the virus, starting with Continental Care and Rehabilitation, which experienced the county’s first outbreak and deaths in October, Sullivan said.

Another death at Copper Ridge Health and Rehab brings the facility to seven deaths, and another death in the community is the county's second outside of care homes.

As more people get sick, the healthcare system is under more stress than ever, and high-risk individuals face a new peril. St. James Healthcare in Butte reported Thursday that 100% of its 75 hospital beds were occupied. One of the community’s last lines of defense is now under threat.

But unlike the health department’s testing and contact tracing facilities, the hospital still has the staff to keep up with the recent surge, and measures are being taken to make more space for patients.  

“We are activating a phase of our surge plan that will allow us to increase our capacity by opening up patient rooms on the sixth floor,” said Nancy Hoyt, St. James Healthcare's chief operating officer and chief nursing officer. “These rooms were previously patient rooms that had been converted to offices, and as part of our surge plan they have been converted back to patient rooms. We have other plans we can implement as needed to expand capacity to allow us to care for as many patients as possible as needs grow.”

Hoyt added that, as part of a larger health system, St. James had the ability to work with partner SCL Health hospitals in Montana and Colorado to support patient care as needed. Bed capacity is just one variable, she said, staff and materials — in adequate supply so far — are other important factors.   

While it’s not easy, Hoyt is confident in the hospital’s ability to care for its patients at every level of staff and administration.

“Our caregivers are carrying a tremendous load as we strive to meet the needs of our patients and community. They are caring for those who are sick, holding the hand of those who are dying and serving as a devoted messenger between patients and family members,” she said. “We cannot say enough about their resiliency, passion and dedication to our patients and to each other. Their efforts are truly nothing short of heroic.”

Sullivan reported St. James was caring for 22 patients with COVID-19, with eight of those patients in the Intensive Care Unit. All ICU beds were occupied and seven patients required a ventilator. Fortunately, the hospital still has 10 additional ventilators.

Statewide, B-SB was one of three counties reporting 100 percent occupancy, with 12 counties reporting over 75 percent occupancy.

At a time when many counties are experiencing over 100 new cases a day, almost a quarter of the state’s 1,672 hospital beds are now occupied by COVID-19 patients, and only 771 beds remain available.

The state reported 111 cases for Butte-Silver Bow County on Thursday, and the county health department reported 42 cases on Friday. Statewide there were 1,475 new cases and six new deaths.

Based on feedback from county contact tracers, Sullivan said she chalks up some of the recent surge to Halloween activity. She’s hopeful the new restrictions imposed Nov. 10 on business capacity, alcohol-service hours, and group gatherings, will start to reduce the caseload next week.

The department’s key request to the community — stay home — hasn’t changed, except that as of Wednesday, the department also requested those with mild symptoms should assume they’re COVID-19 positive and not seek testing unless told to do so by the health department.  

“If people stay home and allow this virus to die down, it will promote relief at St. James. And we’ve got to do that,” Sullivan said.

While the hospital is facing difficulty, nowhere is getting hit harder than care homes. Butte is not alone.

All but one of Montana’s 71 long-term care facilities have reported positive COVID-19 cases, and 58 facilities have a total of 1,441 active cases. The latest data from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services reports 131 COVID-19 deaths in Montana’s long-term care facilities.

Montana has 211 assisted living facilities. Of those, 108 have reported positive cases of COVID-19, with 60 facilities reporting 645 active cases. The state’s assisted living facilities have reported 65 fatalities.

With the holidays ahead, Hoyt said those seeking emergency care should not hesitate to go to St. James, and joined those who work in healthcare across the county in a plea to the community.

“We all have a role to play in slowing the spread of COVID-19. Please be proactive and do your part to take the necessary precautions,” she said. “With the holiday season coming up we do not recommend in-person gatherings. But we understand during the holidays you will want to spend time with family and friends. Think about creative ways to celebrate, such as virtual options or other ways that allow you to spend time together, but apart, to protect your health and the health of others.”

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