HELENA — Montana health care leaders say they’re closely watching the spread of the omicron variant of COVID-19 and preparing for the impacts it could have on hospitals in the state.
“This wave is different, and it has the potential to tax our hospitals more than any previous wave,” said Montana Hospital Association (MHA) President and CEO Rich Rasmussen.
The Montana Medical Association (MMA) organized a Tuesday virtual news conference with representatives from the Montana Hospital Association and the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (DPHHS) taking part.
Doctors said the omicron variant appears to be much more transmissible than other COVID-19 strains — and more likely to “evade immunity” in people who have already been vaccinated or who previously had COVID.
Dr. Neil Ku, an infectious disease specialist working with Billings Clinic, said it does appear many omicron cases aren’t as severe as those caused by the delta variant, but that doesn’t mean the new variant won’t put pressure on the health care system.
“It is important to note that substantially more people are infected by the omicron variant than the delta variant,” he said. “As such, the number of hospitalizations and deaths due to the omicron variant can match and exceed those of the delta variant.”
Acting State Medical Officer Dr. Maggie Cook-Shimanek noted that the state reported more than 6,000 COVID-19 cases last week — more than double the week before. Hospitalizations rose 17% week to week. The omicron variant made up 84% of the cases the state sequenced last week.
While the number of hospitalizations hasn’t spiked as quickly as overall cases, Rasmussen said they expect they will be seeing many more patients in the coming weeks, based on the patterns they’ve seen in other states.
He said another problem is more health care workers — many of them vaccinated — testing positive for the virus and having to isolate. That could compound existing staff shortages.
“Not only is it an issue related to the number of patients, but our ability to care for the patients that we have when we take our caregivers out of rotation from being able to work in the hospital,” he said.
Rasmussen said there’s a real possibility that hospitals could be forced to return to “crisis standards of care” and delay non-emergency procedures.
Ku said some of the monoclonal antibody treatments used against COVID-19 don’t appear to be as effective against the omicron variant. Leaders again urged people to get COVID-19 vaccines and take other precautions, including masking and distancing when possible.
“Vaccination remains the most important and effective strategy in preventing severe illness, hospitalization and death due to COVID-19,” Ku said.
They especially advocated for younger people to get vaccinated. Rasmussen said hospitals are seeing more COVID-19 cases in children and parents of young children.
“It is difficult for our caregivers to see such young people suffer from disease that is preventable with a safe and effective vaccine,” he said.
Leaders said they understand people are most likely to accept the vaccination message if they hear it from the local doctors they trust. The MMA has launched a website called YourBestShotMT.com which is intended to encourage vaccinations for kids ages 5-to-17, and to answer the common questions and concerns parents may have about the shot.
While 53% of Montana’s total eligible population is fully vaccinated, that number falls to 38% among those ages 12 to 17 and just 13% for children between 5 and 11.
Health care leaders said it’s clear the omicron variant is spreading quickly, but they acknowledged we don’t know the full extent of the spread because so many people are using at-home or rapid tests and may not be reporting the results to their local health officials.
Cook-Shimanek said DPHHS can’t quantify how many cases might not have been included because of that, but they definitely believe there has been an undercount.