A Montana VA medical center has opened beds to non-eligible patients to help relieve nearby hospitals during Covid-19 surge

“With more hospital beds available, hospitals now have another tool in their toolbox to treat Montanans in need of care as their systems are strained,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said Friday in a statement.

The state got the green light from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to use open beds at the Fort Harrison Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

The beds will be used for both Covid-19 patients as well as non-Covid-19 patients who wouldn’t otherwise be eligible to be treated at a VA hospital, the governor’s office said.

“The Montana VA stands ready to aid our community partners during this public health crisis,” executive director Judy Hayman said.

The increase in Covid-19 patients have stretched staff and resources at some Montana hospitals. Last week, emergency medicine staff at St. Peter’s Health in Helena, Montana, needed to begin rationing care as the hospital activated its crisis standards of care protocol.

“We are at the point where not every patient in need will get the care we might wish we could give,” said chief medical officer Dr. Shelly Harkins. “By almost every single measure, we are in a far worse position than we ever were in the winter of 2020 during our first surge.”

Montana has been on a devastating trajectory in terms of Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations, exacerbated by a significant number of residents at higher risk of falling severely ill to the virus because they’re not vaccinated. Around 52% of its eligible population are fully vaccinated, according to state data.
Over the past week, the state saw 608.8 Covid-19 cases per 100,000 people, with a positivity rate between 15 and 19.9% — making it one of five states with the highest case rate as of Friday, according to the latest federal health data. The other four states are neighboring Wyoming as well as Kentucky, West Virginia and Alaska.

When it comes to Covid-19 hospitalizations, Montana is again one of the hardest hit in the country.

The state is using 46% of its adult intensive care unit beds to treat patients fighting the virus, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, joining a handful of others with rates over 40%.

“People in the ICU are so critically ill that a nurse is literally dedicated at the bedside keeping you alive every second,” Harkins said. “You are terrified. You have no family of loved ones that can come in and see you. And nobody around you — not a doctor, not a nurse or otherwise — can tell you if you will make it or not.”

And while the additional beds at the VA medical center are important instruments in responding to the influx of Covid-19 patients, Gianforte urged his residents to get vaccinated.

“The best solution to this crisis remains Montanans talking with their doctor or pharmacist and getting vaccinated against Covid-19. We will not mandate vaccination in Montana, but these vaccines are safe, they work, and they can save your life,” he said.

CNN’s Andy Rose contributed to this report.

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