Yellowstone County officials ask Daines to protect public health resources

Yellowstone County officials asked Sen. Steve Daines to protect public health resources, especially in light of the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the county.

On Sunday, 45 new confirmed coronavirus cases were reported, 16 of which were reported in Yellowstone County. The county has the highest number of active cases, topping at 149. Last Thursday, Montana added 67 new cases of coronavirus, the highest number recorded in one day in the state.

“The truth of the matter is that as of today, Yellowstone County is the epicenter of the coronavirus in Montana,” Billings Mayor Bill Cole said in a virtual conference call with the senator.

A number of RiverStone Health’s staff worked over the Fourth of July holiday weekend to catch up on contact tracing, said Yellowstone County public health officer John Felton.

Reinvesting in public health is essential, he said, and the consequences of cutting public health departments is being seen today. Felton also advocated for Medicaid funding and for residents to be role models and wear their masks.

“There are about 25% fewer public health workers today than there were 10 years ago,” Felton said. “Public health is one of those things where prevention is difficult and you don’t see the immediate returns, so it’s easy to cut.”

Meanwhile at Billings’ hospitals, equipment and testing supply shortages are front of mind. Billings-area hospitals meet the needs of 650,000 people in the region.

As of Sunday, Billings Clinic had nine patients in the hospital with COVID-19, similar to the rate of hospitalizations during the virus’ first wave earlier this year, said Billings Clinic CEO Scott Ellner. Eight patients are awaiting results but have shown symptoms of the virus.

Ellner said that the hospital is ready for a surge and could take an additional 20 coronavirus patients. A surge plan is in place that would utilize 36 negative pressure rooms and pulmonary staff. Billings Clinic is also looking for a way to donate 20,000 masks to the community, Ellner said.

However, Ellner expressed concern over a shortage of reagents in the health care community for testing coronavirus patients and patients receiving surgeries. A reagent is a chemical used to perform viral testing of the coronavirus that medical vendors supply to the hospital.

“We really do not want to shut down for business, I think that would be a mistake,” Ellner said. “However, if we don’t have the testing capability available to us, we’re not going to be able to perform surgeries. We’re going to be very limited in our resources.”

St. Vincent Healthcare has personal protective equipment like face masks and gowns in its inventory, and the hospital is restructuring visitor policies, said St. Vincent Healthcare Foundation executive director Ty Elkin.

Four coronavirus patients were hospitalized at St. Vincent as of Monday, and they are not in the intensive care unit, Elkin said. With other patients included, the hospital hovers around 150 patients out of the 235 beds available. There is still capacity in the hospital’s ICU, Elkin said.

St. Vincent is performing a normal number of elective surgeries, Elkin said. Billings Clinic may scale back its elective surgeries, topping at about 105% of the hospital’s elective surgery volume, Ellner said.

Steve Arveschoug, executive director of the Big Sky Economic Development also acknowledged the virus’ impact on the county’s economic health, especially in the hospitality and entertainment industries. Coronavirus relief funds, including extending the Paycheck Protection Program, will be helpful, he said, but he added that investing in an infrastructure that helps new job growth will be important.

“It really feels like we’ve been on a roller coaster, and the operator refuses to shut it down so we can get off,” Arveschoug said.

Many are doing their part to make a difference during the pandemic, Cole said, but voiced the concern of keeping future generations in mind.

“So it’s entirely possible, if not likely, that we’ll have to come back to Washington with our hat in our hand again at some point in the future,” Cole said. “And what we do in the future, I hope that Washington will find a way to help us. But hopefully it can be done in a way that doesn’t just add more unrealistic debt that will be a burden for our children in the years to come.”

Daines told the officials on the press call he hopes a financial package will move through Congress before the August recess.

“That’s a forecast,” Daines said. “That’s an aspiration.”

The package, while still in the works, will focus on children and families, and a conversation about how schools will open in the fall, Daines said. This may include ensuring schools have the capability for temperature testing, coronavirus testing and personal protective equipment. It’ll focus on strengthening the economy and keeping businesses open, as well as helping those still unemployed. Healthcare is another important component.