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Omicron spread in Missoula leaves hospitals short-staffed, prompts health department changes

The spread of the Omicron variant of Covid-19 in Missoula has left local hospitals short-staffed and has prompted changes in how the City-County Health Department will go about its daily routine, a local health official said this week.

What’s more, the state on Tuesday shifted the way it reports cases. Instead of passing reported cases back to individual counties, as had been the practice, it has now moved to automatic case creation. However, City-County Health Officer D’Shane Barnett said that may not be a bad thing once the new system finds its footing.

“This for at least a little bit will look like cases are much higher than they have been,” said Barnett. “But moving forward, it will actually give us a more accurate picture of cases in real time.”

The number of case incidents in Missoula County jumped from 158 earlier this week to 212. The goal remains 10, Barnett said, adding that case counts have doubled over a six-day period.

The virus is on the move, he added, though local health officials remain limited in the ways they can address the public health threat.

“Our doubling time of six days means we’re not yet over the hump of this spike, so we’re not at a place where cases are evening out,” he said. “We’re seeing spread of this virus in our community.”

Data gathered in Montana over 30 days from early December to early January show those who are vaccinated experienced reduced illness and fewer deaths than the unvaccinated.

Of the roughly 650 people over the age of 80 who were hospitalized over that time frame, 122 were vaccinated while 519 were not. Of those, 31 vaccinated individuals died of Covid compared to 173 unvaccinated individuals.

Similar trends held true for those under 80.

With the Omicron variant being more transmissible and more lethal than earlier variations of the virus, Barnett believes the pandemic will continue to strengthen in Missoula and Montana before it begins to level out.

That already has placed a strain on local hospitals, including Providence St. Pats, where as many 90 caregivers have been out sick on a single day. Already strained, doctors and hospital administrators have had to step in complete other tasks.

“They are dealing with really unprecedented workforce shortages. The administrative team and doctors are volunteering to do food service and janitorial, because hospital patients still need to be fed and things need to be cleaned,” Barnett said. “That’s commendable, but it’s not sustainable. We’re going to be putting a significant strain on our hospitals for a longer time.”

Missoula City-County Health Officer D’Shane Barnett.

That concern prompted local hospitals and health officials to submit a request last week to the state asking for assistance from the Montana National Guard. As of Wednesday, Barnett said, the request hadn’t been answered.

And the county’s vaccine rate still lags at 65% when the goal is 85%. To date, 198 people have died from the virus in Missoula.

“In the beginning with the Omicron spike, just like we did with the Delta spike, vaccine demand went up about 0.5 % a week, or 150 people a day,” Barnett said. “But that didn’t last and the demand for vaccines now has dropped to around 30 to 50 a day.”

The virus’ spread and the pressure it has placed on the local healthcare system doesn’t stop at area hospitals. Barnett said the county already has paused universal contact tracing and shifted its focus to testing and case investigating.

Now, case investigation will be put on hold unless certain circumstances are in play.

“It’s important for the public to understand there’s a capacity issue, and we’re not going to be able to contact everyone who’s positive,” Barnett said. “We’ll do our best to prioritize those individuals who are at a higher risk, but we’re getting to the point where you won’t hear from us just because you test positive.”