‘Code blue:’ As pandemic rages in Missoula, hospitalizations, deaths on the rise

Nurses at Billings Clinic prepare to turn a patient from his stomach to his back in the hospital’s intensive care unit on Sept. 17. Missoula hospitals are also full and struggling to keep pace with a growing number of patients – and deaths. (Billings Clinic photo)

As the number of Covid-19 cases in Missoula County continue to soar, elected officials are pleading with residents to mask up, get vaccinated and practice social distancing.

But those efforts have largely fallen on deaf ears, as only 65% of the county’s eligible population has been vaccinated. Missoula now stands as the state’s No. 1 viral hot spot outside Yellowstone County, with more than 1,800 active cases.

Missoula County this week ended in-person meetings to protect public safety.

“We’re going back to all virtual given the state of the pandemic in Missoula County, which is not good,” said Commissioner Dave Strohmaier.

Missoula Mayor John Engen recently toured an intensive care unit at Community Medical Center to “get eyes and first-hand experience” as to the situation facing medical providers. This week, he reported his observations, calling it a dire situation.

“I can tell you that everything you’ve heard, I have now seen,” he said. “Those folks who are providing healthcare in our community are exhausted, but they’re not giving up.”

Engen, who joined local health officials in requesting assistance from the Montana National Guard last month, said Community has expanded its beds into a pediatric unit to address the challenges of the Delta variant and the large number of patients.

“While I was on the tour, there was code blue, and I do not know, but I imagine, that the patient passed away during that tour from Covid-19,” Engen said. “The virus remains very real and is having very real impacts in our community.”

Earlier this week, local health officials reported a record number of hospitalizations and 129 deaths due to Covid. The number of active cases also remains at an all-time high.

Cindy Farr, the Covid-19 incident commander at the City-County Health Department, said the county is seeing an increase in the number of people dying from the virus. Over one week late last month, 11 more residents died.

Half were middle-aged and the other half were elderly, Farr said.

“Deaths in the past three months have far outpaced deaths from the rest of the pandemic before that,” Farr said. “This is showing us the Delta variant is not only more contagious, but also deadlier than the original strain we were seeing last year.”

Frustrated with Montana policies banning health officials from taking local action to stem the virus’ spread, a coalition of medical providers and patients filed suit this week against the state, hoping to invalidate a law they contend has placed public health at risk.

The suit said the law illegally prevents physicians, their offices and hospitals from providing a safe environment for patients. The suit comes during a resurgence of Covid-19 infections in Montana, with many of the state’s major hospitals crammed with infected patients.

“Lives are being lost unnecessarily,” Engen said. “Folks who might otherwise need services in a hospital setting are at risk of not being able to receive those services.”