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As delta variant surges in Yellowstone County, care facilities ramp up vaccination push

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Posted at 5:53 PM, Aug 04, 2021

BILLINGS- On Wednesday, the Yellowstone County Unified Health Command released new numbers showing a rise in COVID-19 cases due to the delta variant.

Leadership at St. John’s United retirement community in Billings says they’ve changed little in the months since the pandemic peaked, still implementing the same safety procedures they have for months to protect guests.

While retirement communities across the nation have moved to mandate employee vaccinations, facilities in Montana are handcuffed from doing the same by a new law approved during the last legislative session. They have one real tool: urging people to choose vaccination, and it's working for residents at St. John's.

“Residents are so well protected,” said David Trost, president and CEO of St. John’s United. “Over 95% of them are vaccinated.”

Still, he admits to some anxiety as the virus continues to take a turn.

“We're feeling a sense of anxiety,” he said. “The community spread of COVID-19 is especially, with this new delta variant, is affecting not only the community but long-term care as well.”

It’s because in part, while residents are vaccinated, some staff remain unvaccinated. In addition, guests who are vaccinated can in some cases still carry the virus and pass it on, according to health officials.

“It’s breaking through to some,” he said.

House Bill 702, which passed in the Montana legislature this past session, prevents discrimination based on vaccination status, including employment in places like nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

“Employees are active with the community, and when they come back vaccinated or unvaccinated, a few of them will come and spike with a positive test result,” said Trost.

He says of the 600 residents living at the Billings campus, only six have had COVID-19. The facility does constant surveillance testing and follows federally mandated guidelines.

He also says 59 percent of their staff are vaccinated.

“That includes both full-time and part-time staff, but the better news I found out recently, our staff who work here the most, about 75% of them are vaccinated,” he said.

Still, the goal is zero cases of COVID-19.

So, his message for those living outside the grounds of St. John’s United: mask up and get vaccinated if they can.

“There is no mandate anymore so it's really about everyone's good common sense,” said Trost.“Masking is probably the most effective thing we can do along with vaccinations.”

In response to the delta variant, Trost says the facility has decided to change guest protocols for the last event of their summer concert series by asking folks to wear masks in certain situations and come vaccinated.