Finding places to transfer sick patients is challenging

Hunter Herbaugh
Sunday, September 19, 2021
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The above map shows the Montana hospital capacity as of Monday, Sept. 13. The state releases updated information every Monday. Several news reports this week indicate that Montana’s largest hospitals hit numbers well beyond those shown above in recent days.

With the recent wave of COVID-19 cases, hospitals, emergency rooms and clinics are getting overwhelmed with COVID cases and Dawson County is no exception. Glendive Medical Center has been experiencing an influx of patients and most notably is having difficulty finding places to send patients with a variety of ailments who are in need of higher degrees of care as larger facilities fill up with COVID patients.

This spring, the Dawson County Health Department and the Department of Public Health and Human Services changed their reporting practices for daily COVID hospitalizations due to cases dropping. The DCHD stopped posting daily updates on their social media and the DPHHS changed its daily report on hospital occupancy into a weekly one and only reports on Mondays.

Those practices have not changed with the recent surge of COVID cases, and therefore there are no accessible reports available for daily hospitalizations.

According to DCHD Interim Director Laureen Murphree on Wednesday, there is currently one active hospitalization at Glendive Medical Center with three other county residents hospitalized outside of the county. There have been a total of seven COVID-19 related hospitalizations of Dawson County residents since Aug. 1.

Dawson County has 37 active cases as of Thursday, according to the state COVID dashboard.

Aside from the hospitalizations, GMC’s Vice-President of Patient Care Services Shawna Dorwart said the hospital has been seeing people daily at the Urgent Care and Emergency Room for COVID symptoms over the last couple of weeks.

“We are seeing pretty consistent numbers of patients coming to our Urgent Care and ER that don’t necessarily end up being hospitalized but do access care in those two departments,” she said.

The severity of sickness has varied from patient to patient, though Dorwart noted that overall, the general severity of sickness has been roughly similar to cases last year. There is some deviation between recent cases and past cases though. Notably, Dorwart explained that while the loss of taste and smell that is unique to COVID does still happen, it’s generally not been the first symptom. She also said that there have been more younger patients coming in for treatment compared to the last wave of cases.

“At some point during the process, most people lose their sense of taste and smell but that’s not usually, necessarily the first symptom they get, it’s a variety of symptoms until then,” Dorwart said. “It’s very similar as far as the level of illness, the variety of ages. We may be seeing a few more younger people than we did the first time but still seeing all across the age spectrum and also all levels of severity.”

This recent wave of cases has also brought back the congested conditions that hospitals across the state faced last fall and winter. So far, Dorwart said GMC has been able to accommodate all patients, even as three ICU rooms have been taken offline due to ongoing renovations at the facility. Though according to CEO Parker Powell, having the additional rooms unavailable has made accommodating patients a bit more difficult.

The renovations began earlier this year and are being done to upgrade the hospital’s facilities to address modern medical care needs, including treating COVID-19. The renovations are expected to be done sometime this fall.

“(The renovations) took out a couple of our rooms that are being remodelled so we’ve had to pivot and utilize our current rooms that are available. It’s provided some challenges for us,” he said.

The real problem though, according to Dorwart, has been trying to transfer patients to larger facilities when they are in need of more advanced care. With larger hospitals at or very near capacity in their intensive care units, this means GMC has not been able to reliably transfer patients to the usual places, such as Billings, and are having to spend more time seeking out a facility with available space. This is the case for all patients, not just those being treated for COVID.

“Our biggest problem right now is because all the larger facilities are so overwhelmed, there is often times where we need to transfer somebody that, it may be a COVID issue or even a non-COVID related issue, but when we need to transfer somebody to a higher level of care, it takes many, many calls before we can find a hospital that has an available ICU bed, or even a bed at all,” she said. “A lot of the larger hospitals are having to divert because they are beyond capacity.”

Other than Billings, GMC has also transferred patients to Bismarck, as well as various other facilities across Montana and beyond. There have not, however, been any surrounding area hospitals transferring patients to GMC.

Reach Hunter Herbaugh at