As flu season approaches, the Cascade City-County Health Department is warning of the dangers of overcrowding hospitals. Earlier this week, a press conference with Governor Steve Bullock revealed that Benefis Health System in Great Falls is currently operating at 115% capacity, with 37 coronavirus patients - seven of them in the Intensive Care Unit.
With coronavirus cases on the rise in Cascade County, some healthcare workers are concerned about the hospital's visitation policies.
Benefis closed to most visitors on March 30, with a few exceptions for the birth center, the neonatal intensive care unit, and hospice care. It reopened to visitors with restrictions on June 26, one day after Governor Steve Bullock eased restrictions on nursing homes in the state. The hospital then tried out one-visitor and two-visitor policies, but ultimately found them to be problematic. It's now under a limited visitation policy.
"We just essentially changed our visitor policy to a managed policy," said Dr. Greg Tierney, Benefis Health System chief medical officer and executive vice president. "You can't come in here with 15 or 20 different people."
This week, a Benefis employee who wished to remain anonymous contacted MTN News to express concern about visitors. The employee said Benefis leadership hasn't responded to concerns about limiting visitation as coronavirus cases spike again, and that visitors at Benefis often don't wear masks. "Benefis does not care for employee safety as much as they care about public opinion," the employee said. "Guests are often non-compliant with mask ordinances once in patient rooms."
Hospital administrators dispute this account. They say Benefis is taking precautions recommended by the Cascade City-County Health Department and the federal Centers for Disease Control to ensure the safety of employees and patients. Employees are required to wear masks or will be disciplined — but when it comes to visitors, mask enforcement is more difficult.
"We really aren't in the business, and really can't be in the business, of either kicking the patient or the family members out of our institution, because that's not what we're here to do," Tierney said. "But, quite frankly, it hasn't really been a major issue for us that's been raised through the normal channels."
As for concerns about rising coronavirus cases in the hospital, Tierney said hospital administrators will "go back and look at whether we're communicating with our employees and our staff enough."
The Great Falls Clinic Hospital has not allowed visitors since March 20, with exceptions for minors as well as end-of-life care. It also has a universal masking policy in place. Heidi Lepard, Great Falls Clinic infection prevention manager, says the clinic is a very different facility from Benefis, with fewer long-term care patients, more intimate spaces, and less staff — and the clinic's more stringent visitor restrictions reflect those facts.
Cascade City-County Health Department Health Officer Trisha Gardner said health-care facilities in the area should "be putting into place precautions as to how they conduct any kind of visitation."
"I do believe the ones that are allowing visitation are putting into practice those precautions, but every entity does have that right to choose," she said.
There were 360 new cases and five new deaths added to the total on the Montana COVID-19 tracking site on Friday morning. One of the new deaths was in Cascade County, and two were in Roosevelt County. The data below is from the official Montana website on October 2:
- TOTAL CASES & RECOVERIES: Montana now reports 13,855 cumulative cases statewide, with 9,569 people recovered.
- HOSPITALIZATIONS: The state reports 177 current hospitalizations, and a cumulative total of 729 hospitalizations.
- ACTIVE CASES: The state reports there are currently 4,100 active COVID-19 cases in Montana.
- TESTING: The number of tests increased by 4,653 over the previous 24-hour reporting period, for a new cumulative state-wide total of 353,362.
- DEATHS: The cumulative number of deaths in Montana is at 186, an increase of five since yesterday.
Numbers reported by the state each day occasionally differ from those reported by county public health departments due to periodic lag times in reporting data to the state. We encourage people to check the official website and/or Facebook page of their respective county health department for any information that is not yet included in the state's daily updates.