First of all, we would like to thank the people of Missoula, Polson and Montana for the sacrifices you have made to help minimize the spread of COVID-19. The swift and selfless actions and sacrifices made by Montanans have kept our Big Sky state as one of the lowest case rates of COVID transmissions in all of the United States.

Throughout this pandemic, hospital and emergency department volumes have been extremely low as people have been unable to have "elective surgeries" or see their doctors in person for most non-emergent problems. Many people have appropriately jumped through the hoops of COVID testing at the designated outpatient sites. Montanans have had to think through whether or not to even leave their homes, much less seek medical attention where there is the possibility of exposure to COVID.

With this, however, there is the risk that people in need will not seek timely medical care out of perceived risk of exposure. One of our cardiologists recently cared for a man in his 40s with days of chest pain who had stayed at home suffering a heart attack.

He finally came to our ED with heart failure. In the ED, we cared for a 90-year-old woman with a stroke who was so afraid of getting COVID in the hospital that she seriously contemplated going home alone rather than risk a night in the hospital. Many of the patients we encounter have delayed care for too long and often result in hospitalization or emergency surgery—and their delay as the root cause. This can be avoided.

COVID fears have provided some patients the needed pause as they determine if emergent care is actually required and this has been beneficial in managing clinical demand. And, while we are grateful that so many of you are staying home to take care of yourself and others, we want to remind you to come to the ED to take care of yourself and others, as appropriate.

We want to make it clear that if you are having serious medical and potentially life-threatening symptoms, please do not avoid care out of fear. We are here for you and are doing our best to minimize any potential risk for you, from COVID or any possible harm.

Our hospitals, clinics and emergency departments have taken aggressive measures to protect both patients and staff from exposure. These range from aggressive use of PPE with universal masking, triaging respiratory patients from non-respiratory patients, routing trauma patients through a separate bay and limiting all but essential visitation.

With the loosening of Montana’s directives, we urge you to continue to do your part by washing your hands, social distancing appropriately and making educated choices while re-engaging. We are here to provide you the highest quality health care—before, during and long after the COVID pandemic is over.

As always, patients who are experiencing life-threatening symptoms should call 9-1-1 or go immediately to the nearest emergency room.

Joyce Dombrousk is the chief executive of Providence Montana and Dr. Kevin Eichhorn is the Medical Staff president at Providence St. Patrick Hospital