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Nearly 100 employees at Kalispell’s hospital currently have COVID-19, and another 73 are in quarantine after coming in contact with the virus that is raging across Montana and the Flathead Valley. 

Last week, when Gov. Steve Bullock announced that the state is implementing new restrictions on social gatherings and businesses, he used the anecdote of Kalispell Regional Healthcare’s then 70 COVID-19-positive employees to explain why the new steps were necessary. Included in the executive order was a provision restricting all public gatherings to no more than 25 people. While some counties had already instituted such a rule, including Yellowstone and Missoula where some of the worst outbreaks have been, Flathead County’s health board failed to institute a 500-person gathering cap on two occasions in recent weeks

“Our health care workers are exhausted and hospital resources are becoming exhausted,” Bullock said. “In some places we are already out of beds and running out of room to put new beds.”

In the last week, Flathead County has emerged as one of the worst spots for the virus in the state. On Tuesday, it added 140 new cases to its count, tying with Cascade County for the state’s daily high, and had 2,344 active cases of COVID-19, second only to Yellowstone County.

Dr. Cory Short, a hospitalist and physician leader at Kalispell Regional Healthcare, said “staffing has been stressed” with the increase of COVID-19 cases in the Flathead Valley and that the hospital has needed to bring in additional help. In recent weeks, seven members of the Montana National Guard have been deployed to Kalispell — specifically to Brendan House, a skilled-nursing facility where more than half of the residents have contracted the virus in the last few weeks — to perform non-medical activities like cleaning and patient transport. According to Capt. Dan Bushnell, the National Guard has been deployed to medical facilities across the state, including large hospitals in Billings, Butte, Great Falls and Kalispell. A five-person U.S. public health team has also been sent to KRH to help with staffing, and a rotating roster of traveling nurses have cycled through the hospital. On Monday, Bullock announced that 110 contracted medical staff from across the country are working in Montana hospitals, and that another 90 will be deployed this week. 

KRH’s own employees are also working extra shifts to try to make ends meet. Short said the long hours are taking a toll on employees. 

“I’ve had more than one patient tell me, ‘I didn’t think this was real,’ but when they get the virus and have to go to the hospital, they become believers pretty quick.”

Dr. Cory Short, physician leader at Kalispell Regional Healthcare

“Morale is challenged right now,” he said. “They’ve been put through the wringer.”

KRH has also had some employees who have been exposed to the virus, but who are asymptomatic, continue to work. Spokesperson Mellody Sharpton said that in those instances, the hospital is following protocols outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of last Friday, there were 19 COVID-19 patients in the hospital. So far, the most the hospital has had was 36 patients at once. It has the capacity for 39 coronavirus patients. Early during the pandemic, all COVID-positive patents in the Flathead area were sent to Kalispell, but in recent weeks some have also been sent to North Valley Hospital, a smaller facility in Whitefish. 

COVID-19 patients account for only a portion of the patients the hospital is currently serving, and Short said the hospital’s census has been higher than normal for months. In the past, Short said, the hospital averaged about 52 patients per day, but this year the average is about 66 per day. Short said the increase can be attributed to COVID-19 and people suffering from chronic conditions who may have been hesitant to seek medical attention due to fear of going to the hospital during the pandemic, but now have no choice.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built a 50-bed temporary alternative care facility on the third floor of KRH’s recently opened Montana Children’s Medical Center to be put into use if other local medical resources were exhausted. Alexandra Schwier with the Montana State Emergency Coordination Center said that facility will open in early December and be staffed with contract health care workers in coordination with KRH. 

Short and other KRH employees said they are frustrated that some members of the community still choose not to wear a mask, a precaution that health professionals say can slow the spread. 

“When I see people without masks, it really frustrates me. I know it’s their decision, but I wish they would consider the implications of that decision,” Short said. “I’ve had more than one patient tell me, ‘I didn’t think this was real,’ but when they get the virus and have to go to the hospital, they become believers pretty quick.”

This story was updated Nov. 24, 2020, to include the latest numbers of COVID-positive and quarantined employees at Kalispell Regional Healthcare.

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Justin Franz is a freelance writer, photographer and editor based in Whitefish. Originally from Maine, he is a graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism and worked for the Flathead Beacon for nine years. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Seattle Times and New York Times. Find him at justinfranz.com or follow him on Twitter.