Deaconess Hospital

Medical personnel wait for a patient at a COVID-19 testing tent last week at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital.

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As Gallatin County continues to well outpace the rest of Montana in known novel coronavirus cases, Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital is trying to get ready for an influx of patients.

As of Thursday, the 38 people diagnosed with COVID-19 in Gallatin County represented 42% of the state’s 90 recorded cases of the new virus. It’s also the first place in Montana known for people to contract the illness locally, instead of arriving sick from elsewhere.

“We are leading the state in confirmed cases, which means that we’re also leading the state in cases we haven’t found yet,” said Gallatin City-County Board of Health member Christopher Coburn during a Thursday board meeting.

The public health message has been that the virus’ presence in Montana is still small enough there’s a chance to contain its spread if people keep a distance from each other, wash their hands often and avoid touching their face.

Bozeman Health President John Hill said Thursday that message is still important. But he said that spread is already happening in Gallatin County. And it’s speeding up. The number of known cases in the county increased by 14 Thursday. A week before the number was in the single digits.

“We know we have community transmission,” Hil said. “... Knowing more and more as we study what’s happening in our county, we are likely leading in Montana in that I think we are moving from containment to mitigation.”

So far, the vast majority of Montana’s patients have been in good enough condition to recover from home. However, as the number of sick people increases and includes those at risk of serious illness with COVID-19, hospitals’ workloads will increase.

Bozeman Health is preparing for a worst-case scenario by working to pull in more providers, beds and equipment.

The hospital converted its gift shop into a place to sort donations, such as homemade masks. A gym, once intended for cardiac rehabilitation, has been converted into Bozeman Health’s incident command headquarters.

Hill said the major focus has been on how to fit more patients into the 86-bed hospital.

Last week, the hospital stalled non-urgent medical procedures. That means holding off on most things that can be scheduled in advance with emergency operations continuing as needed.

Hill said that change allowed the hospital to continue to stockpile things like surgical masks and cut down how many patients are in the hospital at one time, freeing up rooms.

That also left space in now unused clinic rooms that can be converted into more in-patient beds. Hill said that move gives the hospital the chance to grow from 86 in-patient beds to 122 “at a moment’s notice.”

Hill said he expects an additional 40 beds — for a total of 162 — within 90 days as the hospital fast tracks construction on a new floor and an expanded intensive care unit that’s long been in the works.

Bridger Aerospace, a local aerial wildfire management company, delayed construction on a new hangar to send more construction workers to work on the hospital additions. The company has also committed being on-hand to airlift emergency supplies to Bozeman Health if needed.

As for new equipment, in roughly four weeks, Bozeman Health sites in Bozeman, Belgrade and Big Sky will have the gear needed to test for the virus. That means the system could know if a patient is sick with COVID-19 in roughly 40 minutes instead of waiting up to two days for the state lab results.

Hill said Bozeman Health is also collecting more ventilators, machines that help people breathe. If someone gets seriously sick with COVID-19, it can affect their respiratory system. He said the system will have more than 40 ventilators available in the next four to six weeks.

The hospital is also looking for potential new sites to care for more patients “if the need arises.”

He said for now, the hospital has the medical team it needs if every bed available now gets filled. But he said as the system looks to finish the construction to add another 40 beds, it will need to find more workers.

The health system is redeploying a pool of 150 of the employees taken off clinical jobs back into the hospital. Some support staff are quickly being trained to offer support to help clinical teams.

“I think we’ll continue to see those numbers grow as demand on hospitals and the health care system continues to grow,” Hill said.

He said the hospital is reaching out to recently retired physicians and people licensed to practice medicine in Montana to see whether they’re interested in rejoining Montana hospitals through the pandemic.

The health system is also looking at using experienced Montana-based WWAMI students through the University of Washington School of Medicine under the directions of management physicians.

He said the system hopes to grow its medical workforce when a wave of new Montana State University students graduate in April.

“We will take as many of those soon-to-graduate medical students into facilities to help out physicians and medical teams as possible,” he said.

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Katheryn Houghton can be reached at khoughton@dailychronicle.com or at 582-2628.