Montana Hospital Joins Facilities in Alaska, Idaho in Rationing Health Care as COVID Rises

Health care workers in Montana's capital are overwhelmed amid a surge in COVID-19 patients, with critical care resources at capacity at St. Peter's Health hospital forcing the facility to roll out crisis standards of care.

Officials said Thursday that the circumstances under the deadly Delta variant are so dire, they have exceeded previous crisis points in the pandemic

"For the first time in my career, we are at the point where not every patient in need will get the care that we might wish we could give," St. Peter's Health chief medical officer Dr. Shelly Harkins said. "By almost every single measure we are in a far worse position than we ever were in the winter of 2020, during our first surge."

Hospitals in Idaho, Washington and Texas have all reached out to St. Peter's Health for their own crisis needs, trying to find space for patients who can't find beds in their home states. Facilities in Bozeman and Billings said this week that they are also now implementing crisis standards, which nearby Idaho and Washington were already forced to do as they deal with their own surges.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Texas EMS
A hospital in Montana is forced to turn away patients amid a surge of COVID-19 cases. Above, the Houston Fire Department paramedics transport a COVID-19 positive woman to a hospital on September 15, 2021, in Houston, Texas. John Moore/Getty Images

Crisis standards of care are implemented when the hospital resources are not sufficient to provide full care to all patients in the facility.

The hospital's intensive care unit, advanced medical unit and morgue are full. A freezer truck in the parking lot of the hospital will be used because the morgue remains full.

Crisis standards of care can impact everyone, not just COVID-19 patients, Harkins said.

Harkins issued a plea on Thursday for more people in the community to get vaccinated and take precautions to limit the spread of the virus such as wearing a mask in closed spaces, as hospitals across Montana and in neighboring states are facing similar stress.

The hospital in Helena is forced to provide a higher level of care than before because they are unable to transfer sicker patients to larger hospitals as they would typically.

St. Peter's is also contending with a staffing shortage, with 200 out of the hospital's 1,700 positions unfilled in the 99-bed facility.

"What is full capacity for us is related to staffing, not so much bed space," Harkins said.

The facility has submitted a request to the state for support from the National Guard in addressing the COVID-19 surge, Harkins said.

Governor Greg Gianforte said earlier this week that 17 National Guard soldiers will help address the pandemic in the state, with 10 helping at Billings Clinic and seven helping at the state lab and warehouse in Helena.

Montana health officials reported 355 patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 on Thursday. The state has reported an average of over 800 new cases of the respiratory virus per day in the last seven days, a level last seen in early December.