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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Seventeen Montana National Guard soldiers have volunteered to continue helping the state with its COVID-19 response, Gov. Greg Gianforte said.

Ten soldiers will help at Billings Clinic, starting Wednesday, as the hospital faces capacity and staffing challenges with the latest surge on COVID-19. Another seven soldiers will help the state lab and warehouse in Helena.

“Over the last year, soldiers in the Montana National Guard have consistently stepped up to the plate, and today is no different,” Gianforte said in a statement Monday. “We’ll continue working with hospitals to address their individual needs as the state responds to COVID-19.”

Montana reported another 1,249 known COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, with 362 people hospitalized. At least 1,847 residents have died of COVID-19 in the past 18 months, with the health department reporting 47 deaths in the first two weeks of September. Over 474,000 residents — 51% of the eligible population — are fully vaccinated. Cases of COVID-19 have been rising steadily since mid-July.

Billings Clinic, which typically has 28 ICU beds, is now making 40 ICU beds available as the more contagious delta variant increases caseloads.

Hospitalized residents used to be in the 70s to 90s age range, said Nancy Iverson, director of patient safety and infection control at Billings Clinic. A 24-year-old is in the ICU now, she said Monday. An unvaccinated woman in her 20s, with no underlying health conditions, died on Sept. 4 at a Billings hospital, the Yellowstone County health department reported.

“Young people are fighting for their lives,” Iverson told The Billings Gazette.

In Missoula, St. Patrick Hospital reported Tuesday it was using its ambulance bay to evaluate the severity of illness among some patients with COVID-19.

Billings Clinic made its formal request to the governor’s office for 10 soldiers in August. At the time, nearly 600 Montana National Guard soldiers were fighting wildfires. The state said it could fulfill the request in mid-September.

So far, Billings Clinic is the only hospital in the state to formally request Guard resources, Gianforte’s office said.

Montana's Army National Guard has 2,350 soldiers while the Air National Guard has another 950, said Maj. Robert Allinson, public affairs officer for the Montana National Guard. Between 600 and 800 Guard members are preparing to be deployed overseas this fall, he said Monday.

Over the past 18 months, Montana Guard members have been deployed to help with the initial COVID-19 response and to test visitors for the respiratory virus as they arrived at airports. Guard members have also provided security for President Joe Biden's inauguration in January, fought wildfires this summer and are again being asked to help with COVID-19 response.

While Guard members typically help with logistics, such as transporting supplies, they've seen some unique missions due to the pandemic, Allinson said.

Because Guard members have been deployed so often in recent months, the Guard is asking members to volunteer to meet any further requests for help in responding to COVID-19, Allinson said.

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