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Staffing Issues Strain Medical Workers, Slow Contact Tracing As COVID Cases Rise

Stock photo of a tired nurse.

Updated: After the story was initially published, a spokesperson with Gov. Gianforte’s office said it’s exploring the idea of the state contracting more temporary medical staff.

The Montana Hospital Association this week formally requested that Gov. Greg Gianforte’s administration use federal COVID relief money to acquire more medical staff.

In a letter to Gov. Greg Gianforte Wednesday, head of the Montana Hospital Association Rich Rasmussen said many of Montana’s hospitals are operating at or above capacity, significantly straining staffing resources.

Rasmussen asked Gianforte to use federal COVID relief dollars to obtain traveling medical staff, and to suspend some regulations in order to expedite licensure for health care workers in the state.

Jim McKay, chief physician executive at Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula says a master contract would help all hospitals in the state rather than each one competing against each other for traveling nurses and other medical staff.

He says his staff are stretched thin and are mentally exhausted.

“Talked to a nurse in the ICU and she was just kind of haunted by the looks in some of the patients’ eyes and the things they say right before they get intubated. And it’s hard to shake that.”

A spokesperson with Gov. Gianforte’s office says it’s exploring the idea of the state contracting more temporary medical staff.

County health departments in Montana are struggling to keep up with contact tracing as new cases of coronavirus are on the rise.

Health officials in Yellowstone, Missoula and Lewis and Clark counties say they’re seeing high daily infection rates, causing investigators to shift gears.

Riverstone Health spokesperson Barbara Schneeman says Yellowstone County contact tracers have a backlog of about 180 cases. She says the county is looking to hire more help soon.

“What we’re really interested in doing is establishing a regular schedule for those individuals so that we can be more efficient in our case investigation.”

Health officials in Missoula are asking residents to reduce the number of people they’re interacting with. The county says with roughly 60 new infections per day, the backlog of work is growing rapidly.

Until the caseload is manageable, Lewis and Clark County case investigators are focusing on notifying high-risk close contacts and those living in the same household as a positive case.

The state reported 449 new cases of COVID-19 on Friday, and 200 people are hospitalized with the disease.

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.
Freddy Monares
Freddy Monares is a reporter and Morning Edition host at Montana Public Radio. He previously worked for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, covered the 2017 Legislature for UM Legislative News Service and interned with the station as a student. He graduated from the University of Montana School of Journalism in 2017.