Missoula area hospitals and health care providers on Friday said they're prepared for an anticipated surge in COVID-19 patients and have taken steps to restrict hospital access and preserve precious medical supplies.

Both Providence St. Patrick Hospital and Community Medical Center have already closed certain access points and are prohibiting most visitors. Both facilities are also working to preserve personal protective equipment, something they admit is in short supply.

“All of our staff have appropriate personal protective equipment in our screening centers and emergency rooms to prevent exposure to our workforce,” said Dean French, Community CEO. “We've suspended all elective surgeries across our platform in order to preserve and conserve on our personal protective equipment.”

Hospital officials joined local healthcare providers and elected officials in Friday's press briefing, where preparedness for an expected spike in patients led the discussion.

Both Community and St. Pats has issued a call to area business seeking extra protective equipment, particularly masks. St. Pats this week said it was taking masks of “any kind” as it waits for the federal government to ramp up production, something the Trump administration ordered on Friday.

“It's really what we've been focused on the last week, if not two weeks,” said Joyce Dombrouski, chief executive at St. Pats. “That has led us to be consistent in terms of eliminating elective surgeries and elective tests, challenging ourselves to put ourselves in the best position for what we know will be a surge coming at a point we can't determine.”

While only four positive cases of coronavirus have surfaced in Missoula County, health officials have kept busy testing suspected cases. As of Friday, they said, they haven't seen any indication of community spread, saying the four known cases were contracted outside the county.

But that doesn't mean other cases won't surface, and both hospitals are taking inventory of their respiratory isolation units. French said Community is licensed for about 154 isolation beds, and 70 of them are currently occupied with respiratory patients.

“We've identified an area of the hospital where we've set aside rooms for respiratory isolation in addition to our normal capacity,” he said. “That expanded our respiratory isolation capability by about double what we were prior.”

Dean French, CEO of Community Medical Center, said his facility has expanded its respiratory isolation units as it prepares for a potential increase in patients. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)
Dean French, CEO of Community Medical Center, said his facility has expanded its respiratory isolation units as it prepares for a potential increase in patients. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

Dombrouski said St. Pats is licensed for around 254 respiratory isolation beds. Isolation would be used for a suspected COVID-19 patient the same as it would for a respiratory patient.

“Our capacity varies and that's part of the surge planning,” she said. “We're licensed for 254 beds. We run a census of about 160 to 170 beds on any given day. With the closure of elective cases, our census today is really right around 100. We have capacity, and that's part of our surge planning to organize that and be ready for when patients arrive.”

Laurie Fancies, executive director of Partnership Health Center, said the facility's healthcare staff has been interviewing around 30 concerned patients a day and swabbing as many as 15 of them for COVID-19.

Health officials couldn't immediately say Friday how many people were being tested daily across the county, saying only that it changes by the minute.

Francis said Partnership is also working to reach the city's homeless population during the pandemic.

“The other population we're all concerned about is the homeless population. It's a group of high risk individuals,” said Francis. “We're all working very actively together to make sure we screen folks, that we're available to see people, and that they get housed in locations where they can get tested and recover should that arrive.”