Medical experts press lawmakers for stronger response

Editor | July 31, 2020 8:43 AM

Leading medical professionals are imploring local elected officials to take more action on the COVID-19 pandemic, telling county commissioners July 27 that the region is at a tipping point.

Health workers from the county’s medical facilities, including Dr. Gregory Rice, Michelle Boltz, hospitalist at Cabinet Peaks Medical Center, and Dr. Kelli Jarrett described a medical system on the verge of buckling under the strain of the coronavirus. Cases have grown rapidly in the county since the lifting of many of Gov. Steve Bullock’s pandemic restrictions.

“People in our community are being significantly impacted by it,” Jarrett said. “Already, we’ve had two people who have died and I [suspect] that there will be more to come in the next couple of weeks, because we do know that it is spreading rapidly.”

Recent incidents where patients have exposed health workers to the coronavirus underscored the vulnerability of the health care system, the providers said. Medical professionals have gone into quarantine, leaving others to shoulder the caseload. In one instance, a patient chalked the symptoms up to allergies and nearly exposed an entire facility to the virus, Rice said.

“We are really concerned … It wouldn’t take much for us to have to close our doors,” Rice said of Libby Clinic. “The other thing that would happen if you get a clinic to close is that you’re going to overwhelm the emergency room … We at Libby Clinic, like the rest of community, are very dependent on what every individual does in this community. The decisions they make are going to affect all of us, particularly in health care.”

Just caring for a COVID-19 patient adds a burden to the system, Bohls said. The time consuming process of donning and removing personal protective gear necessary to prevent the spread of the coronavirus effectively sidelines those medical staff members.

A week ago, officials with Cabinet Peaks Medical Center sent patients to other hospitals because of staffing shortages, Boltz said.

“[As] community spread levels rise, it’s inevitable that our resources could be very strained. That’s very scary,” she said. “There are a lot of things that are just right on the tipping point and, as our community numbers start to go up, I can see us start tipping in the wrong direction.”

While a representative of the group lobbied commissioners to cancel all gatherings — ranging from Hot August Nites to weddings and funerals — Rice sought permission to launch a public awareness campaign. The effort would focus on good habits, like washing hands, public distancing and mask wearing, in an effort to stem the flow of cases, he said.

County Commissioner Mark Peck (D-1) said he welcomed outreach from the medical community. He cited the lack of consistent messaging on the coronavirus from health experts since the beginning of the pandemic as compounding the difficulties facing the community.

A public information campaign, rather than Bullock’s mask mandate, might have sidestepped the controversy surrounding face coverings, he said.

“People trust their physicians, their practitioners, and I think we all got caught off guard with the immediate slam of the mandate,” Peck said. “I think [educating people] is what we have to do now to make up that ground.”

County Commissioner Josh Letcher (D-3) bemoaned what he described as contradictory evidence surrounding the use of masks. He said he could build a case for or against wearing a mask based on his study of the issue. Although not against wearing a mask, he said he understood why people were frustrated.

When Jarrett responded by asking about his lack of a mask inside the crowded county commissioners’ meeting room, Letcher cited the exemption for those suffering a medical condition.

“There is absolutely no medical condition at all that precludes someone from wearing a mask for 30 minutes,” she replied.

County Administrator Patrick McFadden asked about those diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. Jarrett said they are encouraged to wear face shields. Asked about residents who report that the masks acerbate lung problems, Jarrett was blunt: “If they have a lung issue, they should not be out in public.”

Ultimately supportive of Rice’s proposal to organize a public awareness campaign, the commissioners emphasized the seriousness with which they treated the pandemic. Still, all three pointed to competing priorities, including a struggling local economy, escalating drug use and a rising suicide rate.

“Just from our perspective, we sit in a different world than you do and the issues that we face — we can’t be myopic in our look at anything,” said County Commissioner Jerry Bennett (D-2).

The health providers, though, pointed to the human cost of the pandemic. The patient who nearly exposed a medical facility to the coronavirus attributing her symptoms to allergies was later hospitalized. Jarrett cited a pregnant patient who developed COVID-19 from an unknown exposure. It is now considered a high-risk pregnancy, she said.

And Rice described the final days of a person succumbing to COVID-19, which happened to a Libby Clinic patient.

“Day by day, the patient loses lung tissue, they’re not able to take deep breaths anymore. Many have to be heavily sedated, it’s so awful a situation,” Rice said. “It’s a matter of days, for some people it’s a matter of a few weeks, while doctors watch the lungs dissolve. And they die.”