Dr. Christensen: Providence prepared for surge; still treating other conditions

The entire world is now grappling with a pandemic the likes of which has not been seen in over a century. COVID-19 has now come home to Montana, as was expected. It cannot be stopped, but we have a chance to slow its transmission and reduce the number of severe illnesses and deaths in our communities.

This will require enormous sacrifice by everyone. The burden to slow the spread of this virus doesn’t solely sit with health care workers, first responders, the government and other essential service industries. Its sits with you—the general public.

Without immediate sacrifice and social distancing, America will join the staggering statistics of other countries like Italy—with an astounding 10% fatality rate—and a prime example of skyrocketing transmission and an overtaxed health care system.

The experience in other parts of the United States is also sobering. American hospitals are teetering on the brink of being overwhelmed. There are supply shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), mechanical ventilators, and even the number of beds required to treat COVID-19 patients.

Simply put, this equation isn’t quantified by the number of people who will die, but also by the enormous amount of health care resources needed to treat sick patients and patients who will survive. For example, a patient placed on a mechanical ventilator for this infection can be expected to be remain on that life support device for 1-2 weeks—which far exceeds a patient’s average stay.

Hospitalizations can be prolonged for even those who do not need the Intensive Care Unit level of care. In addition to treating COVID-19 patients, we haven’t stopped and will continue to treat existing conditions such as heart attacks, strokes, trauma injuries, cancers, kidney disease, diabetes and other infections that existed prior to this pandemic. Our community will still need life-saving care beyond COVID-19 treatment.

At Providence Montana, we have been preparing for this scenario for months, in conjunction with city/county and state health departments. We are planning for a patient surge and are conserving and reallocating resources so we are as prepared as possible when the influx of the severely ill arrives, which it surely will. 

Our preparations are applying the learnings from the resources and data available from hospitals and communities already affected. We are also aggressively pursuing a new antiviral treatment as part of a clinical trial and collaborating with state and national clinical experts. 

As an infectious disease specialist, my request to all residents of Montana is simple: practice social distancing and stay at home. Whether you are elderly or chronically ill and at a much higher risk of severe disease or death, or young and healthy with a lower–but not zero—risk (because yes, young people are dying), it is essential you limit the spread of the infection and slow it down enough that it can be managed by our health care system.

When you stay home, you help stop the spread of infection. If we can stop the spread of infection, we will have beds and resources available for you and your loved ones if they become critically ill. Your cooperation with social distancing and staying at home can and will, literally, mean one less funeral in the days ahead.

As a Montanan, I understand the profound impacts this has and will continue to have on local businesses, employers and employees. Many, many families already struggling to get by will be severely impacted. But, by uniting, fewer people will die.

The choice is ours to make. Together.

Joshua Christensen is an infectious disease doctor at Providence Montana – Providence St. Patrick Hospital, Providence St. Joseph Medical Center, Providence Montana Clinics