HELENA — St. Peter’s Health has announced they are in “crisis care” as their critical care units reach full capacity.
Crisis Care Standards occur when it is no longer possible to deliver the normal standard of care to all persons in need. The need occurs when health care resources are overwhelmed by a disaster or emergency.
Under crisis care, hospital staff may be forced to evaluate patients in terms of which have a better chance of survival. Medication may be rationed and patients may be sent home for recovery that would normally be kept for observation should their condition worsen. St. Peter’s says crisis standards are not a flipped switch situation, but a stepped approached without official levels and different departments may be at different levels depending on the number and severity of patients they are dealing with.
On Thursday, the regional hospital said their Intensive Care Unit and Advanced Medical Unit are at 100% capacity. Their morgue is also full right now, and they’ve requested a refrigeration truck. Not all the deaths or critical care emergencies are related to COVID-19, but the most recent surge is contributing to the situation at the hospital.
"We are giving our staff permission to not do it all. The hardest thing they will do in their careers is not giving the care they are used to giving, but they simply can't," said Chief Medical Officer Dr. Shelly Harkins.
Harkins says the latest COVID surge is different and worse than what was experienced in November 2020.
The hospital is urging patients not to delay care and come to the ER or Urgent Care if they are in need. Catching a medical issue early can help prevent it from becoming life-threatening.
"We are still very much here to provide care to our community, and we are doing absolutely all we can to keep all services open. True emergencies will always receive priority," explained Harkins.
While not all patients needing critical care are COVID related, the surge of COVID patients needing critical care in conjunction with other critical patients has pushed the hospital to its limits.
Harkins adds that many hospitals in the Mountain West are in a similar situation. St. Peter's has received calls from North Dakota, Idaho, Utah, Washington and Texas in recent weeks seeing their they have beds available.
“Our phones are ringing off the hook from these places on the other end are clinicians desperately looking for beds for patients who are very sick and dying on gurneys in their halls and ERS. there are not enough beds in the Mountain West to serve the need,” said Harkins.
This week alone Missoula County has tied their record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, Bozeman Health said dangerously close to implementing surge plan due to COVID cases and Billings Clinic is looking to implement crisis care standards. All of Idaho is also now under crisis care standards.
St. Peter’s has requested assistance from the Montana National Guard in responding to the crisis. They are unsure if the request will be granted.
On top of the pandemic, St. Peter’s is facing a staffing shortage and burnout of current employees. The health care organization says they have 200 open positions that aren’t filled.
"Our staff are tired, they are grieving, they are frustrated," said Harkins. "They are doing their very best and they are doing a good job, but it is a struggle to give everything you've got and at the end of the day to know that it is still not enough.
Harkins added that the same staff, on daily occurrences, have been verbally and sometimes physically assaulted.
The Chief Medical Officer said she knows people are sick of the medical community asking people to get vaccinated, but says it is the best and most readily available tool a person has to avoid needing care from COVID-19
"We can't do this alone. We need the communities help," pleaded Harkins. "The vaccine is safe and it works to keep you out of the ER and the hospital."
St. Peter's Health also begs the community, vaccinated or not, to wear a mask indoors to limit the spread of the virus until daily COVID numbers have greatly reduced.