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Montana to post COVID hospital capacity as resources thin and cases surge

The number of coronavirus cases across Montana has more than doubled each of the past two weeks, stretching hospital resources thin and raising concerns over capacity as the flu season nears.

Gov. Steve Bullock on Wednesday described the surge in cases as concerning and said more restrictive measures could be implemented in counties struggling to control the virus if recent case trends continue their upward trajectory.

The state reported 733 new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, marking a new state record.

“When we began gradually reopening the state, we did so knowing that at times certain communities might experience outbreaks, and that more restrictive actions might need to be taken to support certain community needs,” Bullock said. “Throughout the pandemic, I’ve issued statewide directives that set the baseline for where we should be as a state while allowing local jurisdictions to be more restrictive if it’s necessary.”

Bullock stopped short of issuing more statewide restrictions on Wednesday and left that up to local officials at the county level. Some counties have taken action while others have suggested they may do so if necessary in the coming days or weeks.

But Bullock did say that starting Thursday morning, the state will begin posting a daily update on the status of COVID-19 hospital capacity in Montana.

“This reporting will include a statewide snapshot of beds, ICU and ventilator capacity, including a regional breakdown of inpatient beds occupied,” he said. “It’ll also include information specific to hospitals across our state.”

The number of weekly cases has doubled over the past two weeks, from 1,249 last week to 2,451 this week. The last Montana county without a coronavirus case added its first case this week. More than 30% of all cases reported in the last seven days stem from Flathead and Yellowstone counties.

But Dr. Greg Holzman, state medical officer with the Department of Public Health and Human Services, said Gallatin, Cascade and Missoula counties also are showing concerning trends.

“With increased case counts, we’re expecting increased hospitalizations over the next few weeks,” said Holzman. “Unfortunately, with increased cases and increased hospitalizations, we also expect an increase in deaths to occur.”

As of Wednesday, around 235 people were being hospitalized for COVID-related symptoms across Montana in 20 different hospitals. Montana has recorded 193 deaths thus far, the last occurring on Tuesday in Missoula County, marking its fourth fatality.

“Over the last few weeks, several hospitals have been at or near capacity, and several have had to divert patients to other facilities,” Holzman said. “Right now, our hospitals are for the most part able to meet other needs that come up in their communities. That’s not going to be the case as we move into the fall if these trends continue.”

Jim Murray, administrator of the Communicable Disease and Laboratory Services Division with DPHHS, said the new hospital reporting data will play several roles.

By listing available resources, the public will gain a rare view into what state officials have described as a dire situation. It will also help hospital staff locate resources if their own resources run low.

“There is risk we’ll have more times where hospitals will reach capacity and not be able to accept patients for some time, whether that might be for a few hours or for days,” Murray said. “It’s paramount that care is not delayed, and when a patient from a critical access hospital needs to be transferred to higher levels of care, that they’re available.”