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"Like nothing we've ever seen": Missoula leaders call for community help with COVID spike

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Posted at 1:06 PM, Sep 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-09-20 15:54:51-04

MISSOULA — Leaders from Missoula's healthcare providers and every corner of local government and business are calling on people to get vaccinated and renew precautions to stop the explosion of COVID-19 that has "absolutely overwhelmed" local hospitals.

That was the message from a 45-minute online press conference Friday morning, where hospital administrators told of a surge in cases local leaders are asking for the Montana National Guard to help.

Mayor John Engen said Missoula is in "a worse position today" than it has been at any time during the 18-month pandemic because of the "strain" on the local hospitals and healthcare system.

Watch below: Missoula Mayor John Engen discussing the COVID-19 situation in Missoula.

WEB EXTRA: Missoula Mayor Engen discussing COVID-19 situation in Missoula

Engen said Missoula is in "a worse position today" than it has been at any time during the 18-month pandemic because of the "strain" on the local hospitals and healthcare system.

He also encouraged people to get vaccinated if they haven't been already, noting it was the "best way to relieve stress on the hospitals."

That stress is considerable.

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Saint Patrick Hospital Chief Operating Officer Joyce Dombrowski said the surge of the past few weeks is "like nothing we've ever seen."

She says the emergency room is "absolutely overwhelmed". She said Friday morning the hospital had 30 in-patients with COVID, with 23 unvaccinated. And all patients on ventilators had also never had the vaccine.

Watch Dennis Bragg's recap of today's press conference:

Missoula leaders plead for vaccinations as COVID cases spike among the young

Watch below: The Missoula City-County Health Department COVID-19 briefing for Sept. 17:

Missoula City-County Health Dept. COVID-19 briefing: 9.17.21

The situation is similar at Community Medical Center. COO James Gillhouse said CMC is seeing an "incredible increase" in patients, with 20-patients being treated for COVID, or one-third of the total number of the hospital's inpatient census. He said 85% of those COVID patients are unvaccinated, with 93% of the patients in the ICU unvaccinated.

The hospitals haven't gone as far as other facilities in Montana of implanting "crisis care" standards, where some other medical treatments are being shelved. But Dr. James Mckay said St. Patrick is "on the edge" of that contingency.

There's particular concern about the outbreak among younger people. Missoula City-County Health Department Director D'Shane Barnett said of the roughly 1200 active cases in Missoula County now, almost 20% now are children and teens 19 and younger, with another 20% between 20 and 29-years old.

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Barnett noted "now is the time" Missoula would have enacted the mask requirements and limits on event size that were used last year. But he said "unfortunately, we have anti-health state legislators who went out of their way to make that not possible" with changes in the law approved during the last spring.

Watch below: The full press conference from Sept. 17 discussing the COVID-19 situation in Missoula.

Missoula Co. COVID-19 news conference: 9.17.21

Missoula County Commissioner Dave Strohmaier called the current situation a "tragedy of our own making" as he joined the other leaders in "begging" for more people to be vaccinated, but also for all Missoula residents to go back to wearing masks, sanitizing, social distancing and assessing "personal risk" in keeping themselves and others safe.

Engen said the city plans on re-opening the "Sleepy Inn", the former motel it had purchased and renovated last year for quarantining. He said the city is also looking at other options, such as the Johnson Street building, which had been used as an emergency homeless shelter last winter. But he explains staffing such operations is more of an issue than capacity at this point.

The city indicates the Office of Emergency Management's request for the National Guard to come and help with staffing at the hospitals, Poverello Center and re-opening of the "Sleepy Inn" quarantine center is "approved" with details of the deployment next week still pending.

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The Governor's Press Secretary, Brooke Stroyke, acknowledges the request from OEM and said the state is "evaluating all requests the state has received to determine how the state can best allocate our limited resources."

The Montana COVID-19 tracking website showed Friday that Missoula County was reporting 113 new cases on Friday as well as 1,083 active cases.

There have now been a total of 12,282 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in Missoula County including 11,128 recoveries and 116 deaths.

This story clarifies an earlier version about the status of Missoula's request for assistance from the National Guard.