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Health board has few answers for local providers exhausted by pandemic

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | September 17, 2021 7:00 AM

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Entrance to Cabinet Peaks Medical Center pictured Sept. 17. (Will Langhorne/The Western News)

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Entrance to the Libby Clinic pictured Sept. 16. (Will Langhorne/The Western News)

With coronavirus cases testing the limits of the local health care system, exasperated primary care providers asked Lincoln County Health Board members if they had suggestions for slowing the virus’ spread through the community.

Dr. Gregory Rice pointed to the more than 30 new cases of COVID-19 the county was seeing each day as an indicator of the outbreak’s severity during a Sept. 14 board meeting. The figure puts Lincoln County ahead of any nearby county, including Spokane County, Wash., in cases per capita, he said.

“We don’t have enough antibodies in the country to treat all these people,” said Rice, who has continued to assist his colleagues in retirement. “We need to talk about solutions.”

One of the first suggestions? Better attitudes.

“I honestly believe we don’t take care of ourselves,” said new board member Patricia Kincheloe, who promoted clean living, nutrition and vitamin supplements alongside positivity as possible solutions.

“I think we need to have — this sounds silly — but I think we need to have more positive attitudes," she said.

Health board members also heard from Doug Mudgett, chief nursing officer at Cabinet Peaks Medical Center, who said the number of COVID-19 cases the hospital was treating had grown exponentially over the last couple weeks. A “substantial number” of employees were quarantined after having contracted or been exposed to the virus, he said.

Hospital executives have brought on five temporary nurses to work as needed and two certified nursing assistants. Mudgett said executives were working with new agencies to attract talent and had recently heard from a company that claims to put boots on the ground within seven days.

“I think we are keeping our head above water,” he said. “We have some tired staff, though, so we want to be able to not only plug the holes … but also hopefully to draw down the number of patients [that] nurses are currently having to care for.”

While staff previously isolated COVID-19 patients in the hospital’s intensive care unit, Mudgett said employees had moved infected patients who don’t require aerosolizing procedures, which could distribute the virus through the air, into the medical-surgical unit.

Dr. Kelli Jarrett, who works at the Libby Clinic and the hospital, said she was having to make decisions as to which patients could receive nebulizer treatments based on bed availability. Michelle Boltz, nurse practitioner at Cabinet Peaks said the hospital only had two negative pressure rooms where care providers could administer aerosolized procedures.

Jarrett noted that the spike in cases wasn’t just affecting older residents; the hospital recently admitted a patient who was 38 years old.

Earlier in the pandemic, staff could send people infected with the virus to Kalispell. Due to the national shortage of hospital beds, however, Jarrett said employees have had to send patients as far as Salt Lake City.

Boltz said that the shortage of beds in Kalispell and Spokane has made it difficult to transfer patients suffering from other afflictions as well.

“It doesn’t apply just to COVID patients. Those facilities are our transfer facilities for someone who needs a heart surgery if they come in with a heart attack,” she said.

Like Kincheloe, board members Debra Armstrong and Josh Letcher also supported the idea of using supplements to boost immune systems in response to the surge. Armstrong, who works as a nurse, noted that local residents are often deficient in vitamin D3 due to the county’s northern latitude.

Letcher, who serves as county commissioner for the Eureka district, said he knew of a man with multiple sclerosis who didn’t catch the virus when his family members did, supposedly because he was taking high doses of vitamin D for his condition.

According to the National Institutes of Health, there is insufficient evidence to recommend either for or against the use of vitamin D for the prevention or treatment of COVID-19.

By contrast, local attorney Ann German told board members that the answer to the crisis was increasing the number of vaccinated individuals in the county.

“I would think it would be a really good idea to get everybody in the community vaccinated,” she said. “I think it’s outrageous that we have such a low vaccination rate.”

Rice said 64 percent of Lincoln County residents remained unvaccinated.

“That means hospitalization rates and death rates are going to be way higher for our county than say a county like in Seattle where there is 60 to 70 percent COVID vaccinated,” he said.

As of the health board meeting, 96.8 percent of all hospitalized COVID-19 patients tracked by the county health department were unvaccinated, according to Public Health Manager Jenn McCully. At the time, the county’s death toll from the virus was 42.

Rice noted that vaccines might not be as effective at stopping the spread of the delta variant as they had been with the original strain of the virus. But shots still significantly reduce the likelihood of death or hospitalization for delta variant patients, he said.

Board member Jim Seifert also voiced support for increasing vaccination numbers, especially in residents aged 60 to 69 who were only 57 percent vaccinated.

He hoped publicity of the recent spike in cases might give vaccination rates a boost. While he admitted that requirements passed down from state officials might have hamstrung the health board, Seifert encouraged his colleagues to lead by example and put on masks when entering grocery stores.

As a whole, the health board encourages residents to consult their health care providers when making decisions about treatments.

Before closing the meeting, board chair Jan Ivers asked her colleagues to continue brainstorming solutions to the outbreak.

“I think we have some good ideas as far as personal health and how not to get the disease,” said Ivers. “But what I think we need to focus on is how to stop the spread.”