First Montana COVID Hospital Capacity report shows imperfect data

Posted at 6:22 PM, Oct 09, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-10 10:27:49-04

On Wednesday, Governor Steve Bullock announced the State would be publicly reporting COVID-19 hospital occupancy and capacity in Montana. The report breaks down COVID cases by hospital, bed availability, ICU capacity, and ventilator availability.

The Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services (DPHHS) says the report is intended to be a snapshot, with local situations changing frequently.

“People should keep in mind the report is a snapshot in time, and that the numbers change from one day to the next. The report is meant to give the public an idea of how COVID-19 is impacting hospital capacity during these times,” wrote DPHHS Public Information Officer Jon Ebelt.

The Montana Hospital Association (MHA) says even though it’s a snapshot, it’s good for people to see the broader impacts in their area. “I think for the public to understand is that as the community faces more spread by looking at these numbers, you can immediately evaluate what is the impact on your community. Beyond those numbers that you see daily reported by the state,” said MHA President Rich Rasmussen.

Each hospital reports daily their numbers into a state reporting system and then DPHHS pulls the numbers from that system and those numbers create the report. When looking into the October 7 report, MTN found some cases of incomplete and inaccurate data.

St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, one of the largest hospitals in the state, only had 10 COVID cases reported. There was no reporting on their bed availability or ICU capacity. DPHHS says the missing data points are because St. Patrick didn’t provide all the requested information for the first report, but expect the info to be more complete in future reports.

MTN also discovered some inaccuracies with data concerning St. Peter’s Health in Helena. While the COVID-19 Hospital Occupancy and Capacity report indicated St. Peter's had seven active COVID cases during the snapshot. However, St. Peter’s told MTN they’ve never had more than five active cases at one time.

Bed capacity in the report for St. Peter’s Health in Helena could also be seen as misleading. The October 7 report said St. Peter’s had 133 beds between non-COVID patients, COVID patients, and unused beds. St. Peter’s told MTN they are a 99-bed acute care hospital with an additional 24 beds in their behavioral health unit that are licensed to be used for behavioral health patients.

The 133 number comes from if they are at surge capacity, which St. Peter’s has not yet implemented.

In response to the discrepancies, DPHHS reiterated they’re relaying data that was submitted to them, but have encouraged organizations to correct data in the system if they notice an error.

MHA told MTN there’s going to be anomalies, especially in first-time reporting, but they’re working with the State and their members to help sort them out.

“We’re going to be meeting with State officials to make sure some of these data points are able to provide the most accurate snapshot in that point of time,” said Rasmussen.

Rasmussen added even without the report, the continued rise in COVID cases in the state is stressing hospitals in the state.

“Each area we’re seeing cases, we as Montanans can do something by wearing a mask,” Rasmusen said. “This is not a question of if you’re violating someone’s civil liberties, this is a question of what’s our role in humanity. What is our role in terms of how we are going to care for one another and we know we have vulnerable populations. Montana has the 6th oldest population as a percentage of our total population.”

Rasmussen added wearing a mask is no different that wearing the required amount of orange in hunting season - wearing a mask, just like wearing hunting orange, help protect people from harm.