Virus straining county’s hospitals

by CAROLYN HIDY
Lake County Leader | November 18, 2020 7:00 AM

As COVID-19 cases rise rapidly in Lake County, the staff at both St. Luke Hospital in Ronan and Providence St. Joseph in Polson are feeling the strain. With teamwork and coordination with other hospitals, they are still meeting the high level of patient care for which they are known. But the future is partly in the hands of Lake County residents, depending on how seriously we take preventive measures such as masking, distancing and washing hands.

Over the past weekend, St. Luke’s COVID unit of eight beds was filled to capacity, CEO Steve Todd said. By Monday, that number had dropped to five following some recoveries, and St. Joseph COO Devin Huntley reported three COVID beds full.

“It comes in waves,” Todd said.

“I am super impressed with our team,” he added. “We have doctors taking extra calls. Nurses are stepping in for extra shifts, caring for covid-unit patients, doing extra testing of staff and community members.

“We have taken some licks, with staff in quarantine due to them or a family member testing positive. It has put some strains on the rest of the staff and on our ability to provide certain services,” he said. “The great news is, we have a resilient staff. They have stepped in and covered all the gaps to keep care going forward.”

“Today, we are fortunate with minimal staff exposures,” Huntley said. “But, like our statewide hospital partners, this can quickly change.”

“Fatigue is a real factor impacting our caregivers,” Huntley said. “But we take care of each other with the same level of commitment and compassion as we do our patients. We are a family caring for Lake County families.”

Todd concurred.

“Our staff is the most important resource we have; it is essential we take good care of them. Fatigue sets in in certain pockets. We have to step in and make sure they get the relief and support they need, listen, get resources where we need to, help staff at their most challenging point.”

COVID care patients require a higher level of care, staffing and other resources, as they are often more ill than others, especially in the first few days, Todd said.

“Technically, there’s no (Intensive Care Unit) here,” Todd said. “We are trying not to get into a situation that would require ventilators. That really amplifies the resource needs, and staffing would be a real challenge for us.”

St. Luke does have ventilators on hand, but typically, some of the most acutely ill will be transported to a larger hospital in Missoula or Kalispell. Often, a bed can be opened up in those hospitals if St. Luke can take another patient in return.

St. Joseph has similar arrangements.

“We rely on our sister hospital, Providence St. Patrick in Missoula, and other larger hospitals in Western Montana for help if we need to transfer patients out of St. Joe’s, either because of capacity or certain expertise not available here,” Huntley said. “We also rely on other larger hospitals in western Montana for this.

“This is why it is so important for us all to work together to help stop the surge of the pandemic. These hospitals need to be able to take these patients and care for them if we are unable to.”

A bi-weekly phone meeting facilitates coordination between both local hospitals, Lake County Public Health, Tribal Health, Polson Health, Lake County Unified Command and regional hospitals.

“We talk about numbers, issues, supply needs, protocol/process questions, available capacity. It’s very helpful,” Todd said. “We’re just careful about making sure we know if we don’t have capacity, we’re aware what resources are available outside of our area — if we do need to ship someone, where to go. We have had good support both north and south.”

What happens if the number of cases overwhelms the county’s hospital capacity?

“It becomes a constant evaluation of pressure relief,” Todd said. “Are there patients ready to go home? Can we hold patients in the ER while waiting for a bed?”

“St. Joe’s is no different from every other health care organization,” Huntley said. “Our resources will be increasingly strained if the rate of COVID transmission outpaces our ability to treat and care for it.”

“I hope it doesn’t get worse, I hope the community responds appropriately, makes good choices, curtailing activities,” Todd said. “I hope this spike encourages people to wear masks. We know it works. I’m optimistic that if it does get worse, we’ll weather it, we’ll get through it.”

“If you are experiencing signs of stroke or cardiac distress, do not delay care,” Huntley said. “Call 911 or immediately proceed to our emergency department. We are here and ready to care for you in a completely safe environment.”

Huntley encouraged the community to work together.

“Our plea is simple. Please mask, social distance and wash your hands. These factors have proven to slow the transmission of COVID.”

“There is an old saying,” Huntley said. “‘A rising tide lifts all boats.’ It couldn’t be more true than right now. We can beat this pandemic, but we have to do it together.”