Billings Clinic thankful for Navy team as COVID-19 struggles continue

Navy at Billings Clinic
Posted at 4:13 PM, Nov 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-24 18:13:57-05

BILLINGS — The COVID-19 pandemic continues to overwhelm Billings hospitals.

Earlier in November, Billings Clinic had to call in reinforcements from the U.S. Navy - a group of 20 doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists working on the front lines. They’ve been invaluable, according to CEO Scott Ellner, so much so the hospital can’t afford to have them leave anytime soon.

"We’d like to hire them all," Ellner said, eliciting a laugh all around the Mary Alice Fortin Health Conference Center on Tuesday morning.

It was a small moment of levity in an otherwise serious conversation that included the Navy’s surgeon general, Rear Admiral Bruce Gillingham. Navy teams have been deployed to nine different states over the past three months, and Gillingham noted Billings is in bad shape.

"Given the severity of illness here, the team is finding it as challenging if not more challenging," he said. "I think the hospital is well over 100% in terms of its in-person census."

Bruce Gillingham Surgeon General
Rear Admiral Bruce Gillingham, the U.S. Navy Surgeon General, addresses the COVID-19 crisis at Billings Clinic on Tuesday, Nov. 23.

As of Monday, Billings had 84 COVID-19 patients, including 26 in the ICU. Unlike National Guard units that have primarily helped with vaccinations and testing when helping hospitals, the Navy group has worked with the most dire cases.

"To a sailor, they’ve all told me this is the most meaningful thing they’ve done in their careers," Gillingham said.

The team may have helped the hospital civilian staff even more, not just providing additional resources but giving them hope.

"They need to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel," Ellner said. "We're not out of the woods yet. If we could leverage the surgeon general and his team for at least another few weeks, we’d love it."

The additional black cloud hanging over the situation? Billings Clinic will need the help much longer if President Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandate goes into effect, with close to 1,500 employees still unvaccinated.

"The challenge is going to be that in the state of Montana, people will choose their personal freedoms, whether they are medical or religious," Ellner said. "We want people to please consider getting vaccinated, but if they don't we're going to be in a situation where we may lose really good people."

An uncomfortable prospect in a healthcare world that already has too few people.

Navy at Clinic
U.S. Navy personnel gather at Billings Clinic to await instruction on what help they'll provide the hospital.