Billings Clinic emergency department manager Brad Von Bergen and Dr. Jaimee Belsky show a hallway at Billings Clinic that has been converted into several small patient rooms. The hospital’s intensive care unit has been over capacity amid a deadly surge. Credit: Courtesy Billings Clinic

As the number of Montanans hospitalized with COVID-19 reached its highest level since winter this week, Gov. Greg Gianforte said his administration has secured an agreement to make six hospital beds at the Fort Harrison VA medical center available for patients who don’t otherwise qualify for health care through the Veterans Affairs system.

As of Friday, state health authorities reported the state has 416 active COVID-19 hospitalizations stemming from the renewed surge in cases that began in July. According to state data compiled by the COVID Tracking Project, the state’s record hospitalization count so far in the pandemic was 506 patients on Nov. 20 of last year.

Even without breaking the record, the latest wave of COVID-19 cases, coupled with a shortage of health care workers, has stretched Montana’s emergency care system increasingly thin. Multiple hospitals in the state have said they’re being forced to consider rationing medical services and supplies

Gianforte said this week he is assigning National Guard members to give beleaguered hospitals additional hands on deck. Including assignments to Livingston, Whitefish, Kalispell and Plains announced Friday, the state now has 124 guard members assigned to health facilities around the state.

Gianforte’s office and the state Department of Public Health and Human Services have also issued an emergency rule intended to make it easier to free up hospital beds by transferring patients between facilities.

The new agreement with the VA gives Montana hospitals permission to transfer patients to as many as two acute care beds and four medical surge beds at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Fort Harrison hospital in Helena. The governor’s office says the VA will accept patients “if it has the capacity and capability to provide required care.”

“With more hospital beds available, hospitals now have another tool in their toolbox to treat Montanans in need of care as their systems are strained,” Gianforte said in a statement.

The governor also re-upped his call for unvaccinated Montnans to consider getting a shot, calling it “the best solution to this crisis.”

“We will not mandate vaccination in Montana,” Gianforte said, “but these vaccines are safe, they work, and they can save your life.”

To date, the state has recorded 1,945 deaths officially attributed to the virus, including 68 in the last week. 

latest stories

When self-harm leads to jail

Jailing people because of a mental health issue is illegal in Montana and every other state except New Hampshire. But an 11-year-old tribal policy allows law enforcement to put members who threaten or attempt suicide in jail or juvenile detention to prevent another attempt.

Martha Williams nominated to lead U.S. Fish and Wildlife

The Biden administration announced Thursday that it is nominating former Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks director Martha Williams to become director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. If confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Williams will become the second major Montana appointee to work under U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland.

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.