HELENA — The increasing number of cases of COVID-19 in Montana is stretching the state's health care system, a hospital's chief medical officer said Thursday, as she urged residents to take the virus seriously.
"I will put this very simply," said Dr. Bridget Brennan with Benefis Health System in Great Falls. "We are experiencing a public health crisis. The number of positive COVID cases is rising so quickly that it is threatening to overwhelm the health care resources here in the state."
In recent weeks, the state has experienced drastic increases in the numbers of COVID-19 positive patients and hospitals are reaching or exceeding the capacity of their intensive care units, Brennan said.
"At Benefis Health System we began to see an increase not only in the number of hospitalized patients from Great Falls and our usual region, but we were also seeing an increase in the number of patients transferred to us from other parts of the state where ICUs were full," Brennan said.
Chief medical officers of the state's largest hospitals are now holding daily conference calls to share information and work to use their resources more efficiently, she said.
"We can only do so much," Brennan said, in asking people to wash their hands, stay home if they're sick, avoid large gatherings and wear face coverings.
Gov. Steve Bullock said the state has put out a nationwide request for medical workers, especially registered nurses, to come to Montana to help the state's health workers treat coronavirus patients but said "we haven't gotten anything back."
Montana reported a record 735 newly confirmed cases of COVID-19 on Thursday. More than 300 people are hospitalized, including 104 in Billings.
Fifty-three COVID-19 patients were hospitalized in Great Falls on Wednesday while another 27 are in Kalispell's hospital, the state health department reported. Thirty-five patients are on ventilators at the state's largest hospitals.
In the seven months since the pandemic began, Montana has reported nearly 21,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 230 deaths. The case numbers are thought to be far higher than reported because people can have COVID-19 without having symptoms and not everyone has been tested.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
In other news related to the coronavirus:
— The Montana Department of Corrections reported Wednesday that the private prison in Shelby has had at least 201 of its 586 inmates test positive for COVID-19, along with 34 staffers. It's unclear how many people at Crossroads Correctional Center are currently infected, but Toole County reported 54 new cases of the respiratory virus on Monday. CoreCivic, which operates the prison, said additional tests are pending. In late September, CoreCivic announced an outbreak involving more than two dozen inmates and three employees.
— Bullock, a Democrat, announced another $5 million in grants would be available for public health agencies to help with COVID-19 related expenses. Agencies that received grants during the first round of the funding will be asked if they want to accept second grants, the governor's office said.
— Applications for unemployment benefits in Montana declined to 2,721 last week, a decrease of just over 20% from the 3,472 new applications the previous week. Since March 14, the state has processed nearly 160,500 claims for unemployment benefits, meaning 35% of the workface was unemployed at some point during the pandemic.
— As of Oct. 3, nearly 17,000 Montana residents were receiving unemployment benefits, representing 3.7% of eligible employees, the U.S. Employment and Training Administration said Thursday.