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VA nurses are volunteering to help with Montana COVID response

Posted at 10:09 PM, Nov 25, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-26 00:09:31-05

Earlier this year, the Montana VA Health Care System (MTVAHCS) sent nurses across the country to help areas that were hardest hit by the pandemic.

Right now, Montana is one of those hardest hit areas.

This year, South Carolina native Jennifer Price, a registered nurse, will be spending Thanksgiving 1,700 miles away from her family to help cover shifts at the Montana VA Medical Center.

Price is one of more than 20 nurses from out of state directly deployed through the Disaster Emergency Medical Personnel System (DEMPS) to assist MTVAHCS with the COVID crisis the state is facing. Individuals have to volunteer through DEMPS, but they are paid for their time.

Married to a veteran, Price says she’s used to spending holidays away from those most precious to her.

“My background is ICU so I’ve always been one who wants to run towards the fight and help out,” said Price. “For us it’s just another sacrifice that we’re willing to make for the greater good.”

Price says the big difference between Montana and South Carolina is case rate and infrastructure.

“So when you look at the population of South Carolina there’s about 5 million residents, Montana has 1 million residents. So you’re looking at a state that is much, much larger than South Carolina but has a smaller population density and the cases are a lot higher. Which is concerning because the health care system here doesn’t necessarily have the resources to absorb all of that into their facilities,” said Price.

The Montana VA Medical Center, like many hospitals in the state, have been facing staffing challenges. Nurses, doctors and support staff are catching the virus in the community and then needing to quarantine for two week so they don’t potentially infect anyone at the hospital.

Montana VA critical care staff
Courtesy: Montana VA Health Care System

A third of the intensive care unit staff were out due to COVID last week, and MTVAHCS lost an employee earlier this year to COVID complications.

MTVAHCS has been cross training qualified employees to help fill in gaps in other critical departments.

Ju Chowning currently serves as the risk manager for MTVAHCS. However, before taking the position, Chowning worked as an ER and rural nurse.

In the past month, Chowning has been getting back into her scrubs to cover shifts in the ER.

“There are some of us that still had experience,” said Chowning. “If nothing else it supports the team that is down there in the trenches.”

The cross-trained staff covering shifts allows for the regular staff in those departments to get some time off, and not have to work constant double shifts and weekends.

Chowning says the pandemic has taken a physical and emotional toll on the front line staff.

“This isn’t just a virus, our staff have been affected by stress,” said Chowning. “We’ve had a lot of staff either get COVID or be contacts. Everyone is pitching in and trying to do their part. I just felt lucky I could add to that.”