Billings hospitals preparing for surge in COVID-19 patients

Elective surgeries canceled at Billings Clinic
Posted at 9:19 PM, Mar 17, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-18 16:22:04-04

BILLINGS — Billings Clinic and St. Vincent Healthcare are prepared for a surge in COVID-19 patients and are ready to open extra beds for critical patients if need be, hospital leaders said at a Tuesday news conference in Billings.

"Our healthcare capacity in Yellowstone County, while it is really great and it is one of the strong healthcare centers in the United States, it is still limited. And if we get overwhelmed, we're not going to be able to take care of all of our patients. And at the same time, we have to realize this is not just about COVID-19, it's about our trauma patients, our heart patients, it's about our oncology patients, and the older person who gets sick with a urinary tract infection. All of these things have to play into it as we look at it," said St. Vincent Chief Medical Officer Dr. Michael Bush.

The Billings Clinic has 10 providers in pulmonary and respiratory care, 50 ventilators on standby and 78 hospital beds in negative pressure rooms ready for critical patients, said Billings Clinic CEO Dr. Scott Ellner.

On top of that, the clinic is able to turn its emergency room and surgical recovery room into isolated COVID-19 treatment spaces within 24 hours, Ellner said.

"We could actually add infrastructure, including our emergency department and other areas like our old live dialysis suite that could handle probably 120 percent of our normal capacity if we did see a large surge. As far as number of patients, that would probably be somewhere between 50 and 60 patients," Ellner said.

Both hospitals have isolated hospital entry to keep possibly positive COVID-19 patients away from hospital staff and others.

Access to St. V's has been restricted to three entry points: the standard emergency entrance, the North 30th Street entrance and the west sky bridge.

Billings Clinic is canceling elective or non essential surgeries in accordance with a recommendation from the American College of Surgeons in order to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spread to health care workers.

“It is recommended that we do this until the inflection point of the exposure graph for the virus has passed so we are confident that our health care infrastructure will not be exposed to viral shedding," Ellner said.

People scheduled for elective surgery should call their doctor to make schedule arrangements.

Bush did not say whether St. Vincent was also canceling elective surgeries.

Both hospitals have set up isolated COVID-19 test sites. People must have a doctor recommendation before they show up at a test site.

St. Vincent Hospital's site is in a tent located in the parking lot closest to North 27th Street and 11th Avenue North. It is a drive up location where people don't even exit their vehicle to be tested, Bush said.

Billings Clinic's COVID-19 testing site is located in the former dialysis building. It has seen 92 people total and as of 1 p.m. Tuesday, 74 people were tested.

“So far, none of those people have tested positive. They have been sent home under self quarantine if we suspect that a test may come back positive later," Ellner said.

If people are feeling the symptoms of cough, shortness of breath or a fever of 100 degrees or higher, or have come into contact with a COVID-19 patient, it's time to call the doctor.

The Billings Clinic has set up phone numbers to call to see if a COVID-19 test is the right choice at 406-255-8400. St. V's encourages people to call their doctor with questions regarding testing.

Those with symptoms severe enough to seek emergency care should call the emergency room in advance or tell the 911 dispatcher that they may have been exposed to COVID-19.

The criteria for testing is set up by the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

The hospital leaders said following proper testing protocol and social distancing guidelines could have a real impact on the number of cases seen in Yellowstone County and possibly lift a burden from the health care system.

“I do believe we have an opportunity here in Billings, if we really do take this seriously, if we really do practice hand washing … make sure we’re staying six feet away from people, avoiding large gatherings of people. As we do this we can really limit the spread and really reduce the pull on the healthcare resources in the community," Bush said.