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Omicron leaves Missoula hospitals short-staffed, prompts health department

MISSOULA, MONTANA – The spread of the omicron strain of COVID-19 in Missoula has resulted in hospital personnel shortages and modifications to the City-County Health Department’s daily operations, according to a local health official this week.

Furthermore, the state changed the manner it records instances on Tuesday. Instead of returning reported cases to specific counties, as was previously done, it has now transitioned to automated case generation. However, Shane Barnett, City-County Health Officer, believes that this may not be terrible if the new system gets its feet.

“This will make it seem for at least a short while that instances are substantially greater than they have been,” said Barnett. “However, in the future, it will provide us with a more precise view of instances in real-time.”

Missoula County’s case incidences increased from 158 earlier this week to 212. The aim remains at ten, according to Barnett, who added that case numbers had risen in the last six days.

He said the infection is spreading, adding that local health professionals are constrained in their ability to handle the public health concern.

“Our doubling time of six days indicates we’re still not over the hump of this increase, so we’re not at a point where cases are equating out,” he said. “This illness is spreading throughout our neighborhood.”

Data collected in Montana during 30 days, from early December to early January, reveal that people who have been vaccinated had less sickness and fewer fatalities than those who had not been vaccinated.

One hundred twenty-two of the approximately 650 patients over the age of 80 hospitalized during that period were vaccinated, while 519 were not. COVID-19 claimed the lives of 31 vaccinated people and 173 unvaccinated people.

Similar patterns were seen among persons under the age of 80.

With the omicron variant being more transmissible and more lethal than earlier variations of the virus, Barnett believes the pandemic will continue to strengthen in Missoula and Montana before it begins to level out.

This has already put a burden on local hospitals, notably St. Patrick Hospital, whereas many as 90 caregivers have been absent due to illness on a single day. Already strained, doctors and hospital administrators have had to step in complete other tasks.

“They are dealing with really unprecedented workforce shortages. “Because hospital patients still need to be fed and things need to be cleaned, the administrative staff and physicians are volunteering to perform food service and cleaning,” Barnett said. “That is admirable, but it is not sustainable.” We’re going to be putting a significant strain on our hospitals for a longer time.”

That concern prompted local hospitals and health officials to submit a request last week to the state asking for assistance from the Montana National Guard. According to Barnett, the proposal had not been responded to as of Wednesday.

The county’s vaccination rate remains at 65 percent, although the target is 85 percent. In Missoula, 198 individuals have died as a result of the infection.

“At the beginning with the omicron spike, just like we did with the delta spike, vaccine demand went up about 0.5 % a week, or 150 people a day,” Barnett said. “But that didn’t last, and the demand for vaccines now has dropped to around 30 to 50 a day.”

The virus’ spread and the pressure it has placed on the local healthcare system doesn’t stop at area hospitals. Barnett said the county already has paused universal contact tracing and shifted its focus to testing and case investigating.

Now, case investigation will be held unless certain circumstances are in play.

“It’s important for the public to understand there’s a capacity issue, and we’re not going to be able to contact everyone positive,” Barnett said. “We’ll do our best to prioritize those individuals who are at a higher risk, but we’re getting to the point where you won’t hear from us just because you test positive.”