Third and Fourth County Deaths Reported
In a digital townhall on Oct. 18, Valley County Health Officer, Dr. Anne Millard, gave an update on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic in the county calling on its residents to “take this more seriously” and urging people to follow mandatory mask requirements, social distancing and hand hygiene protocols to slow the spread of the disease locally.
The news of increasing hospital patients was accompanied by the tragic news that the county experienced two more COVID-19 deaths. The two individuals were a woman in her 80s and a man in his 90s.
As of the evening of Oct. 19, FMDH had 12 inpatients. Of those, nine were COVID positive and three were not. None were in any sort of intensive care status, according to FMDH public information officer, Kyla Burns.
FMDH has 25 inpatient beds available, but they caution that they are limited more by staffing than space, a point Millard emphasized in her townhall. The hospital was equipped with two ventilators and two other machines that can function as ventilators if need be.
Due to the sudden increase in patients and cases in general across the county, the Valley County Health Department called a special meeting for the evening of Oct. 21 via Zoom. According to health department director, Lynn Miller, the meeting is intended to provide a community update from all entities involved in the pandemic response and to discuss the possibility of issuing further guidelines or enforcing those in place.
The meeting will be held on the Zoom app and can be accessed with the following ID and passcode. Meeting ID: 964 4844 0667 Passcode: 910923
Millard’s townhall came after a weeks’ long rise in total cases and a steady increase in severity that led to 10 total hospitalizations on Sunday, Oct. 18. According to Millard, that number had pushed Frances Mahon Deaconess’ nursing staff to their max capacity and required the hospital to staff five nurses around the clock—10 nurses per day—solely to treat inpatients.
Millard discussed with the community a need to be conscious of the fact that strain faced by FMDH staff takes its toll over time and threatens other patients in the community such as heart attack and stroke victims and even childbirth.
“We’re running a little bit to max capacity as far as staffing is concerned right now,” explained Millard, after stating that nurses, “can come back for several 12-hour shifts in a row but after a while they get pretty tired, and I don’t really think you want a tired nurse looking after you.”
The health officer said the hospital was not planning on shutting down services such as the clinic, physical therapy and the like, but she did say it was a possibility if the number of inpatients in the hospital remains high or increases over time. “So, right now you want to go ahead and make sure you stop spreading COVID around because we have so many patients here,” Millard said to the public, stressing the need to slow the spread.
She also pushed back on the idea that patients could be sent to other hospitals. According to Millard and news reports around the state, many hospitals are experiencing high rates of hospitalizations and the Billings Clinic—the largest regional hospital in Eastern Montana—has been at capacity multiple times in recent weeks forcing them to reject transfer patients.
“People are trying to send these patients out, we’re not the only ones who are trying,” Millard said. “Unfortunately, they’re having to stay locally, and we can manage them for the most part locally, but it takes a lot of our people.”
During the question and answer segment of the townhall, Millard addressed contact tracing, and FMDH employee protocols if exposed to COVID. Discussing close contact employees, Millard said, “We’ve sent a lot of people home that way, yes.” She went on to explain that with the need for staffing, some employees who are sick or exposed may have to work while infected in the future, but that has not occurred to date. She stressed that with proper protective equipment and procedures the risk to patients can be mitigated.
Throughout the discussion, Millard emphasized the use of masks, social distancing and handwashing as the most effective measures for slowing the spread of the virus and reducing active cases and hospitalizations. She reiterated that COVID-19 is spread through respiratory droplets that are put into the air when people breathe, talk, sneeze or cough. Masks, distance and hand washing prevent those droplets from being dispersed into the air and spread from person to person which slows the virus’ spread.
In counties that are experiencing three or more cases, a mask is mandatory in public places, stores and in groups where maintaining six feet between individuals is impossible.
The health officer also said people need to use appropriate face coverings, pointing out that neck gaiters are actually ineffective as masks in the case of COVID-19 because the thin fabric allows those droplets to escape into the air. The gaiters’ porous fabric actually reduces larger droplets into smaller ones, explained Millard, which actually worsens the effect because they then hang in the air longer and travel farther.
“There was a physics professor who did a study on this and they tested it,” Millard explained. “I can find the data if you want, but it came out about three months ago. The gaiters just don’t work as well. So, if you’re really going face to face with people your best bet is to be in some sort of mask.”
In response to concerns about Halloween, Millard stated in detail, “Well, I’m just going to ask a simple question. We’ve talked about social distancing. We’ve talked about hand hygiene. The mask concept is a little different from the Halloween mask concept… I will say that I’m not sure Halloween should be held at all, but I am not putting out a mandate at this point to say Halloween is cancelled. I think people are a little bit crazy if they do have Halloween.”
Millard went on to point out that the congregating of large groups, the mixing of family units who are not normally in contact with each other and the length of time those people spend together are all concerns about Halloween celebrations. She finished the segment by asking, “Do you really think Halloween [and COVID] should go together? I guess you’re going to make that decision for yourself.”
In a closing statement during the townhall, Millard passionately asked the county to take the disease seriously. She stated:
“I would like this county to take this more seriously. I realize there are a lot of people out there who think that this is a joke and it’s not that big of a deal. I had a patient in this hospital who I saw in the respiratory clinic last week and his COVID test came back positive and this week he showed up in our ER and his oxygen level was terrible, so he got admitted to the hospital. He was started on what therapies we have to help him. In the meantime, when he got in the shower, he decided to take his oxygen off. He passed out in the shower because his oxygen level was so low. This is a normally healthy guy, who works for a living out here in our world, who has nothing and no reason why he should be this sick, but he is. COVID’s not the Flu, everybody keeps saying it’s like the Flu, it’s not the Flu, and the one thing that I’ve noticed is as it’s getting colder, which it’s about to do for the next six months, the cases are getting more severe.”