Credit: courtesy of Billings Clinic

HELENA — With hospitals across Montana struggling to accomodate a renewed surge in patients hospitalized with COVID-19, Gov. Greg Gianforte said Tuesday he is assigning National Guard members to aid beleaguered staff at facilities in Billings, Helena, Butte, Missoula and Bozeman.

Seventy guard members, on top of 17 who have already been assigned, will be in place as soon as this weekend in response to requests for assistance, the governor’s office said. They will be able to help hospital staff with non-medical work in intensive care units, data entry, COVID-19 testing and environmental services, or cleaning.

The governor’s office also said Tuesday that it expects “several other hospitals” to formally ask for help from the National Guard in the near future. 

“Joining doctors and nurses on the frontlines, the men and women of the Montana National Guard will provide critical supports to our hospitals as their systems are strained,” Gianforte said in a statement.

The governor’s office said 10 National Guard members have been helping at Billings Clinic and seven at the Montana Public Health Laboratory in Helena since last week.

In response to formal requests for assistance, an additional 10 guard members will be assigned to Billings Clinic, along with 10 to St. Vincent Healthcare in Billings, 10 to St. Peter’s Health in Helena, 6 to St. James Healthcare in Butte, 10 to Bozeman Health, and 24 assigned to Missoula County.

The governor’s office also announced Wednesday that 20 guard members would be assigned to the Benefis Health System hospital in Great Falls.

The governor said Tuesday that vaccination remains the state’s best tool to address the COVID-19 pandemic.

“While these Guardsmen will help ease the heavy burden our frontline health workers face,” he said, “the best long-term solution to this crisis is for Montanans to talk with their doctor or pharmacist and get vaccinated. While we will not mandate them, vaccines are safe, they work, and they can save your life.”

As of Tuesday, Montana had 9,976 active COVID-19 cases, according to the state’s official data, with 377 patients currently hospitalized. Multiple Montana hospitals have said in recent weeks that the renewed surge is forcing them to consider rationing medical services and supplies.

Gianforte’s predecessor as governor, Steve Bullock, also used the National Guard to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, assigning guard members to, among other duties, screen people arriving at airports for the virus and help nursing homes with infectious disease control protocols.

This story was updated Sept. 22, 2021, to note the guard members being assigned to Great Falls.

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Eric Dietrich is a journalist and data designer and the founder of the Long Streets economic reporting project. His reporting focuses broadly on Montana’s governance and economic opportunity, with particular focus on the state budget and tax policy. He also contributes data reporting across the MTFP newsroom. Before joining the MTFP staff in 2019, he worked for the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network and also earned an engineering degree from Montana State University. Contact Eric at edietrich@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 2, and follow him on Twitter.