Montana VA is preparing for COVID surge capacity and facing staffing challenges

Montana VA critical care staff
Posted at 6:33 PM, Nov 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-25 14:46:02-05

The Montana VA Health Care System (MTVAHCS) has updated their COVID protocols and hospital procedures following an increase of coronavirus cases and hospitalizations in Montana.

Visitors have been restricted to only end of life care or to provide transportation for a patient. Staff will be doing more telehealth visits where possible and reducing the number of elective procedures.

“We're still doing elective procedures, but what we have done is prioritize certain ones over others,” said MTVAHCS Chief of Staff Dr. JP Maganito. “A part of that is because of staffing. We want to make sure we don’t just continue our services, but also protect the staff.”

Staffing has become a concern for the VA Medical Center at Fort Harrison, just like every other hospital in the state right now.

Nurses, doctors and support staff are catching the virus in the community. The intensive care unit (ICU), who are the front lines of the pandemic, are no exception.

“Last week I had a third of my department out. Nurses, I had a third of them out. It’s making staffing difficult,” said ICU Supervisor Catherine McAllister, RN.

Montana VA critical care staff
Courtesy: Montana VA Health Care System

Earlier this year the MTVAHCS sent nurses to support more than 20 missions across the country to help with the hardest hit areas by the pandemic.

Montana is now one of those hardest hit areas.

Of the 630 COVID-19 deaths reported in Montana as of Nov. 24, 255 deaths were reported in the month of November alone. In 2020, 22 Montana veterans have died so far from complications of COVID-19.

The VA Medical Center is currently making preparations to be at surge capacity, and more than 20 VA nurses from other states have been deployed to assist MTVAHCS.

McAllister says in her years of medical experience, there is no compassion to how difficult the pandemic has been.

“We’ve lost an employee, so that was very hard. We’ve had young people in the ICU that we’ve had to fly out,” explained McAllister. “The problem that we’re going to have is pretty soon we’re not going to have anywhere to fly people, and so they’re going to be here with us. We are a lower level critical care facility, so we draw on our resources in the VA a lot. But at some point they’re going to be full and they won’t be able to take our patients.”

Montana VA prepares for COVID-19 surge capacity
Courtesy: Montana VA Health Care System

A big concern right now is that if Thanksgiving meals aren’t kept small and mask mandates aren’t followed, there’ll be an even bigger spike in the coming weeks and months. A spike Montana hospitals won’t have the resources to deal with it.

“Everyone is up to their necks dealing with COVID, we as your healthcare workers need you to do your part. We too are sacrificing a lot of things, but our system is completely taxed,” Maganito said. “We’re sacrificing our holidays, time off, time with our families-- we’re doing this for you, and I hope that the public reciprocates that and gives up help.”

Maganito begs people to wear their mask, follow distancing and limit gatherings to only those that live in your household. He added the idea using a herd immunity strategy for combating the virus would completely overload the health care system, and the loss of life would be unacceptable.