MISSOULA — Editor’s note: This story was updated at noon with comments from the Governor’s Office.
Gov. Greg Gianforte on Monday made available members of the Montana National Guard to help a Billings hospital address its capacity and staffing challenges resulting from the latest surge in COVID-19.
One Missoula hospital also inquired for support two weeks ago, but the request was not an official ask for help. The Billings Clinic remains “the only hospital in the state to formally request Guard resources,” according to the Governor’s Office.
“We’ll continue working with hospitals to address their individual needs as the state responds to COVID-19,” Gianforte said in a press release.
In early September, Missoula Mayor John Engen joined local hospital officials in a discussion with Gianforte’s health policy advisor and an administrator from the Department of Health and Human Services, where a request for Guard support was investigated.
An official with the governor’s office said the process of requesting support for Guard resources isn’t new, and was made available to Montana Hospital Association members in early September.
“All hospitals have received official guidance from the state on how to submit a formal request for Guard resources,” said spokesperson Brooke Stroyke. “Hospitals must submit a formal request to be considered for Guard resources, and to date, Billings Clinic has been the only hospital to do so.”
While Gianforte’s office said it has been providing resources to hospitals as needs arise, members of the Missoula City Council continue to voice frustration and concern over the current trajectory of the virus and its impacts on public health – and the local healthcare system.
“I have family in health care I can tell you they’re exhausted and heartbroken,” said council member Stacie Anderson on Monday night. “If you can’t do it for you, can’t do it for your family and can’t stay safe and be vaccinated for all the kids who can’t (get vaccinated), then do it for the healthcare workers. You want them at the top of their game if, god forbid, you find yourself in the hospital.”
Despite the pleas of elected officials from across the political spectrum, just 51% of the state’s eligible population has been vaccinated thus far, according to the Montana Department of Health and Human Services.
Billings continues to lead the way in its number of active cases with 1,711. Flathead County follows at 1,008 and Missoula County is close behind at 956. Local health officials can no longer use the tools employed last year to slow the virus’ spread under new state laws passed by the Legislature and signed by Gianforte.
Missoula County reported more than 215 new cases on Monday alone.
“We’re at one of our highest points of hospitalization right now, and that really creates an issue with capacity,” said council member Amber Sherrill. “I don’t know how to appeal to people to get vaccinated and be safe more than we already have. It creates a real problem for our hospitals. I feel scared for my teenage daughter driving around and if something were to happen to her. I feel scared for people having a heart attack. I don’t know what else to say.”
It’s been nearly two years since Missoula residents ventured out at night to howl at the moon – a show of support for local healthcare workers. Those efforts have since faded and the virus continues to spread, leaving more than 350 hospitalized statewide and 1,842 dead.
If howling was a vaccine, the outcome would be different, Anderson suggested.
“All those platitudes are pretty worthless if we’re not willing to do what it takes to keep from burning out our healthcare workers and overburdening them to the point of staffing shortages and running out of ICU beds and ventilators,” she said.