Montana hospitals grapple with staffing challenges amid COVID-19 surge

Montana hospitals are working with the state to address staffing shortages that have been exacerbated by a COVID-19 surge in the state, the Montana Hospital Association confirmed to Becker's Hospital Review.

"Community spread of COVID-19 is unnecessarily putting an already strained workforce under more stress. Many staff working in direct patient care are having to quarantine for up to two weeks, reducing the capacity of hospitals to care for all patients," said association spokesperson Katy Peterson.

She also noted that hospitals early in the pandemic were able to call on neighboring hospitals or states for support, but that option is largely gone, since most U.S. and Montana communities are experiencing widespread infections.

"There is a greater need to provide care locally, as well as the increased challenge to provide it," said Ms. Peterson.

Eleven Montana hospitals reported capacity above 90 percent, according to data released Oct. 14 by the Montana Department of Health and Human Services. 

Overall, in the state, 1,872 inpatient beds were occupied and 915 were available as of Oct. 14. That compares to 1,713 and 1,051, respectively, on Oct. 7.  

To address staffing challenges during this COVID-19 surge, the hospital association and state are working to identify avenues to request and deploy surge teams, Ms. Peterson said. These avenues include the Montana Mutual Aid System which recruits and assigns volunteers, both with and without medical backgrounds, as well as deployment of the National Guard.

As of Oct. 8, Montana Department of Health and Human Services reported 69 requests for personnel currently active in the field, which include both civilians and Montana National Guardsmen.

Ms. Peterson said the hospital association is also looking at how hospitals can reduce barriers to existing training programs for certified nursing assistants to expand the available workforce.

Billings (Mont.) Clinic, a nonprofit organization with more than 4,500 employees, told Becker's in an emailed statement that about 130 of its employees are quarantined as of Oct. 14, and it, too, is making efforts to step up staffing. These efforts include engaging staff from some of its health system partners across Montana and northern Wyoming, as well as bringing in temporary staff.  The organization seeks to bring in 50 to 60 registered nurses, 20 to 30 certified nursing assistants, five respiratory therapists, and five to 10 laboratory technicians as temporary staff to supplement its workforce. Billings said it is also "implementing process changes to increase efficiency, such as in supply chain operations, for care staff, which allows them more time caring for patients."

"Our staff are working incredibly hard and provide safe, quality care even with these challenges, but they are stretched from the surge in COVID patients," Billings said. 


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