Omicron amplifies hospital staffing shortages and contact tracing challenges

The Flathead City-County Health Department is moving away from tracing all close contacts toward positive cases of COVID-19. Officials say the speed at which the omicron variant spreads makes it almost impossible to quarantine close contacts before they are infectious.

Flathead County Health Officer Joe Russell says the change is in line with guidance from the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services as well as national public health organizations.

“The large number of cases must push us to do something different because there simply aren’t enough person-hours in the day to do a classic investigation, contact tracing and quarantine,” says Russell.

Several national public health organizations issued a joint statement this week say omicron has made traditional contact tracing difficult because the virus has a short incubation period and most people are contagious before they show symptoms. The statement said health officials should still find a way to identify close contacts of positive cases who are at risk of serious illness.

Russell says the Flathead County Health Department was able to automate its system so that anyone who tests positive will receive a text notification with a request to complete a form identifying high-risk close contacts, such as residents of retirement homes.

“It’s actually going to build us a chart so we can quickly identify high-risk exposures.”

Russell says up to 70% of positive cases have completed these forms. His department will contact high-risk close contacts and advise them to get tested and self-quarantine.

In an email to local health officials this week, DPHHS recommended that local health jurisdictions adopt this automated system in an effort to streamline the identification of high-risk close contacts. DPHHS spokesman Jon Ebelt said many counties are in that process. Lincoln County announced Wednesday that it is following this
advice.

Shortage of hospital staff

St. Peter’s Health and Helena’s Shodair Children’s Hospital say they face severe staffing shortages due to a record number of staff infected with COVID-19 and increased staff turnover.

In a news release, St. Peter’s Chief Medical Officer Shelly Harkins said people should be prepared for longer wait times for emergency services and canceled procedures. She added that the hospital does not have enough staff to meet the demand for inpatient beds, and transferring patients to out-of-state facilities has become increasingly difficult as hospitals are again overwhelmed with COVID patients.

The problem is only getting worse in Montana, as statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased nearly 90% in the past two weeks.

Shodair CEO Craig Aasved said the children’s hospital was also struggling with severe staffing shortages and the waiting list of children needing immediate psychiatric care was growing.

Shodair and St. Peter’s say they are stepping up efforts to retain staff by increasing salaries and hiring more medical students for rotations.

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