GMC stays busy during COVID surge

Hunter Herbaugh
Sunday, October 18, 2020
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On Tuesday, the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services released information that showed Glendive Medical Center was at 100% bed occupancy rate.

With COVID-19 cases threatening to put a strain on hospitals resources, the Montana DPHHS started publishing daily information on the occupancy of hospitals across the state. These reports give Montana residents a daily snapshot of the current situation in their counties and help hospitals quickly locate another facility they can direct patients to if they need.

According to state information from Wednesday, Oct. 14, the most recent report available, about half of Montana’s hospitals have bed occupancy rates of about 70% or more, this includes GMC which had a reported bed occupancy rate of roughly 76% just a day after it was reported at 100% occupancy.

Glendive Medical Center CEO Parker Powell noted that these numbers are subject to change significantly on a day-to-day basis as patients continue to come in and be discharged throughout each day. These numbers also only account for licensed beds at the hospital, he noted, but the hospital does have a “surge plan” in place in case they get an influx of patients, meaning they do have more beds they can utilize, although they are not licensed. This means that while state information may say the hospital is at 100% occupancy, GMC could actually be tending to more people and be operating at more than 100%.

“In the hospital, we have 25 licensed beds. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have more than 25, we certainly can,” he said. “We have what’s called a ‘surge plan’ and that surge plan allows us to go over that 25 bed limit and actually, we’ve identified through our surge plan that we would have 50 have 50 beds available. Although, that doesn’t mean we can staff 50 beds, it just shows we would have them available if things got pretty severe here.”

As of Friday, Oct. 16, Dawson County has had 149 total cases of COVID-19 with 60 active. There have also been 13 total hospitalizations with three active.

The county also added another death, with the individual passing away sometime between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, according to the Dawson County Health Department. That brings the county’s total COVID deaths to two.

While COVID patients are contributing to the overall occupancy of the hospital, Powell noted that they are, by themselves, a small portion and transitional patients are actually contributing pretty significantly to GMC’s occupancy rate. When discharged from the hospital, transitional patients who can’t be go home are usually discharged to a nursing home. However, with nursing homes being one of the main sources of COVID outbreaks, the hospital has not been able to put patients there and have had to keep them in the hospital.

“We always have people ask how many positive COVID patients we have and although we might only have a handful in every day, what really impacts us is we’re experiencing a higher volume of transitional care patients because a lot of these patients, if they can’t be discharged to home, they have to be discharged to a nursing home, and because of the pandemic, a lot of these nursing homes nation-wide, even in our region, are not currently accepting or admitting patients. Therefore, these patients, we have to care for them in a hospital setting, so that has an effect on our increased census. A lot of the facilities across the state, especially the critical access hospitals, are experiencing that,” Powell said.

Powell added that over the last two weeks, GMC has only had to utilize a minor part of the surge plan. He added that the week of Oct. 5 was when they primarily utilized the plan, as they saw a slightly bigger volume of patients at that time. Unlike the normal beds that are assigned to different departments, beds available under the surge plan can be utilized where needed.

However, while Powell noted that physical supplies, such as PPE, continue to be in good stock at GMC, staff is another issue. He noted that even prior to the pandemic, finding enough staff was a problem and it has only continued since then. This lack of staff is concerning because should they need to utilize their surge plan again, how many patients they can effectively care for depends on the staff that is available.

“It depends on the day, how much staff we have available and how much staff we can call in. It’s a moving target,” he said.

As one of the larger hospitals in Eastern Montana, GMC doesn’t just deal with patients from Glendive. Like all other hospitals, GMC takes in patients from the surrounding region when those patients are in need of a level of care that smaller hospitals cannot provide. With staffing being a chronic issue, the facility has had to rely on travelling medical staff in the past, and continue to do so, to fill the gaps.

As the situation continues to worsen in the county, it’s becoming harder and harder to predict when the hospital will need as much staff as they can get available and when the surge plan will need to be used again.

“We’re seeing cases increase, we are seeing our census remain relatively high, it just depends on how severe an outbreak is or not. We always have those plans in place if we need to activate it, and we’ll activate it if we do, but as far if I know we will (need to), I don’t. I don’t think anyone knows,” Powell said.

Reach Hunter Herbaugh at rrreporter@rangerreview. com.

“It depends on the day, how much staff we have available and how much staff we can call in. It’s a moving target,”

Parker Powell, GMC CEO