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Montana Is Calling For Help As Coronavirus Surge Overwhelms Health Care System


Montana has five times the number of coronavirus infections than it had just a month ago. The state is now one of the nation's leading hot spots - and among those getting infected, nurses and other health professionals. Hospitals are scrambling to keep up. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Dr. Scott Ellner is the CEO of Billings Clinic, the state's largest hospital system. He says his staff is overworked.

SCOTT ELLNER: It's been very, very challenging for our staff, so much so that that people are talking about giving up their careers in health care.

BOLTON: Ellner says he's bringing in 60 traveling nurses from out of state to fill in staffing gaps. While asking for medical professionals in Montana to volunteer, Governor Steve Bullock said that requests for out-of-state medical staff he made three weeks ago have gone unanswered.

STEVE BULLOCK: We worked to source health care workers with limited success to date, and we know that the need will continue. We've sent out a request nationwide for National Guard medical staffing.

BOLTON: So far, the state has provided about 70 nursing, paramedic and medical support volunteers to mostly small medical facilities on or near the state's seven Native American reservations. But it hasn't been able to meet all requests for nurses. One reason - high infection rates in the handful of cities with big hospitals here.

Dr. Doug Nelson with Kalispell Regional Healthcare says that means lots of staff are out on quarantine.

DOUG NELSON: That affects our ability to staff. So we're able to do it right now - but something that we're again watching day to day and hour to hour.

BOLTON: Nelson says his hospital has emergency overflow units, but staffing capacity could be a major barrier to being able to actually open them. Nurses like Eric Vezina in the hospital's COVID-19 unit says nurses are taking care of more patients than they normally would, and it's hard.

ERIC VEZINA: You stress about possibly catching it and not knowing it and bringing it to your family or your co-workers.

BOLTON: The statewide mask mandate remains in effect, and now bigger counties are imposing or are considering new restrictions on social gathering size and capacity at bars, restaurants and churches.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Columbia Falls, Mont.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Aaron is Montana Public Radio's Flathead reporter.