Empty Hospital Halls

Two employees at Bozeman Health Deaconess Hospital speak with each other at the end of an empty hallway.

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The Gallatin City-County Health Department reported Monday there were 15 county residents hospitalized for COVID-19.

Health Officer Matt Kelley said he believes it to be the highest number of people reported to be hospitalized for COVID-19 in a day since the pandemic began. The number refers to Gallatin County residents hospitalized for COVID-19, and includes residents who may be hospitalized in a different county or state.

Birgen Knoff, Bozeman Health system director of clinical practice, said Monday their numbers can change quickly. For example, on Monday morning the health system had 13 patients hospitalized for COVID-19. By the afternoon, that number dropped to 11 patients.

The health department reported 41 new COVID-19 cases on Monday, 57 on Sunday and 59 on Saturday, continuing a trend of increasing case counts in recent weeks. Kelley said last week that the increase in cases — there were 175 new cases from Tuesday to Thursday — was pressuring the county’s contact tracing ability.

“It wasn’t long ago that we had two to three, maybe four people in the hospital with coronavirus,” Kelley said Monday. “To have that sort of shift to the norm being seven, eight and nine, and now we’re up to 15, that is concerning.”

Kelley said his concern is compounded by high hospitalization rates in other parts of Montana. According to data from the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services, both Billings Clinic and Benefis Hospitals in Great Falls had between 70% and 90% of beds occupied as of Oct. 19.

Kelley said the situation elsewhere in Montana limits Bozeman’s options should hospitalizations increase.

“In normal times, if you’ve got a big surge in Bozeman, Billings would be a primary place that you’d get some relief from that,” Kelley said.

Knoff said they have transfer agreements with other health systems, but Bozeman Health has not taken on a significant number of patients via transfer agreements recently. Knoff said they created plans to deal with a surge at the beginning of the pandemic that include increasing the number of beds beyond their normal capacity.

On Monday, Bozeman Health had roughly half of its capacity filled, Knoff said.

“We feel really good right now about our capacity to take on additional patients with acute care needs,” Knoff said.

The health department reported last week a {span}seven-day rolling average for the rate of positive cases{/span} of 10.9% on Thursday, and a seven-day rolling average of daily cases of 42.1 per 100,000 residents. Both were increases from the previous week. The department is seeing increasing cases from all areas of the county in different age categories, Kelley said, and the situation is “not getting any better.”

Kelley said that the high rate of cases in Bozeman is a specific concern for long-term care facilities.

“The more cases you have in the community the harder it is to protect those long-term care facilities,” Kelley said. “The people who are working in those facilities live in those communities … they go out in the world the same as all the rest of us.”

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Nora Shelly can be reached at nshelly@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2607.