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Staff Face Increasing Hostility As Montana Hospitals Tighten Visitation Policies

 St. Peter's Health in Helena, MT
Shaylee Ragar
Montana Public Radio
St. Peter's Health in Helena, MT

Montana hospitals and clinics are tightening their visitation policies to protect patients and staff as cases of the delta variant continue to mount. Officials at a Helena hospital say frustrated visitors are leading to unprecedented levels of hostility directed at staff.

Brenda Lockington is Saint Pete’s Patient Access Director. She oversees a staff of almost 60 people who are the hospital’s true frontline workers.

“They are the people who are answering any of the phone calls coming into our organization," she says. "They are the people you see coming into any of our entrances. They are the people who schedule your appointments. They’re the people who work the ER registration 24/7, 365.”

And increasingly they’re also the people bearing the brunt of the public’s growing frustration with the disruptions to routine caused by the ongoing pandemic.

“This is just a small minority of people who are angry for some reason and they’re taking it out on the staff," she says.

As COVID case counts climb, hospitals are implementing masking mandates, health screening and various visitor restriction policies.

Lockington says some people don’t want to mask up in the hospital, resent being asked about their destination and resist efforts to get their temperature taken.

She remembers one recent visitor’s angry reaction when asked to wear a mask. She says his anger quickly escalated into an outburst.

“And when we told him his loved one couldn’t go with him at the time because we’re trying to keep the number of people in the hospital down he walked out, threw his mask, cussed and swore and did some not-so-nice gestures to us as he was walking out,” she says.

At a recent press conference announcing the start of healthcare rationing, Chief Medical Officer Shelly Harkins said Saint Peter’s Health workers are seeing more pushback as they provide patient care.

“They are verbally assaulted every day," she says. "They are yelled at, cussed at, spat at. They have things thrown at them. All because they don't want to wear masks or they don't agree with our visitor limitations.”

Hospitals across the country are reporting similar hostilities as the pandemic drags on.

Lockington says while only a tiny fraction of the community behaves like that, it’s almost a daily occurrence at Saint Pete’s.

She says those noteworthy incidents stand out as Helena has otherwise enthusiastically supported the hospital throughout the pandemic.

That support, she says, has only intensified during the recent COVID delta surge.

“They’re buying meals. They’re coming with signs of support and it’s much appreciated," she says.

Lockington says Saint Pete’s is short staffed and the ones who remain are tired and stressed, adding the last thing they want or need is unnecessary confrontation.

“They care about their jobs," she says. "They care about what they do. They care about their community. It really takes an effect on them. How do you not take it home?”

She says some staff are turning to hospital counseling services to help cope with the confrontations.

“Just please be kind to everybody that you come in contact with," she says. "We're all trying to keep everybody safe here with this spreading the way it is. We would like to see an end come to it at some point in time. I just want to thank everybody out there that is kind to the staff and everybody, thank you so much. Thank you for all your support. And we will continue to do the things that we need to do to keep everybody safe here at St. Peter's Health.

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

Edward O'Brien is Montana Public Radio's Associate News Director.