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With low vaccination rates, Montana's COVID hospitalizations have continued to rise

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Nationwide, COVID hospitalizations have dropped 20% in the last two weeks. The trend is the opposite in a handful of states, though, like Montana. Hospitalizations have more than doubled in the last two months, and some hospitals are rationing care. Montana's vaccination rate is among the lowest in the U.S. Montana Public Radio's Aaron Bolton reports health care workers are exhausted, and elected leaders are being criticized for failing to stop the surge.

AARON BOLTON, BYLINE: Like a lot of Montanans, 33-year-old Brandon Brigham hasn't been too worried about COVID.

BRANDON BRIGHAM: Just didn't think it was no big deal. Hanging out at the bar, playing pool.

BOLTON: But today Brigham is sitting in a hospital bed in the ICU at Billings Clinic, one of the state's largest hospitals.

BRIGHAM: Yesterday I thought I was going to die. It's pretty terrible.

BOLTON: Like most in Montana's hospitals for COVID, Brigham is unvaccinated, a decision he says he regrets. And hospitals now are nearly as full as during the peak last fall. Sheila Hogan is the former head of the State Health Department.

SHEILA HOGAN: This is the first time during this pandemic that our hospitals, our health care facilities, are reaching a breaking point. We're really seeing a crisis of leadership.

BOLTON: Now head of the Montana Democratic Party, Hogan says the state's Republican-majority legislature and Governor Greg Gianforte have taken actions that go against the advice of public health experts, like banning vaccine mandates and reducing the authority of county health officials. His health department also issued an emergency rule, saying schools shouldn't mandate masks.

LAUREN WILSON: We've seen the rate of new infections definitely rise after school started.

BOLTON: Dr. Lauren Wilson is vice president of the Montana chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.

WILSON: And I think that reflects that not all the schools in Montana are using layered mitigation measures to prevent spread within schools.

BOLTON: Like masking Gianforte's health department offered evidence it says shows masks don't reduce infections. Dr. Wilson says that's not true and that Gianforte's administration misinterpreted the literature.

WILSON: And I find it hard to believe that they took any advice from people with a scientific background and have been coming up with this list of literature, which really is cited inaccurately or is not part of the scientific literature.

BOLTON: Back inside the Billings Clinic ICU, a bank of computer screens monitor patient vitals. Alarms go off when there are problems, like a COVID patient's oxygen levels plummeting dangerously.

(SOUNDBITE OF OXYGEN ALARM BEEPING)

MADISON: Hey, Jessica (ph). It's Madison (ph). Hey, just want to make sure somebody's in for the O2 alarm. All right, perfect. Thank you.

BOLTON: Before the pandemic, this ICU had 24 beds. But in recent weeks, staff here are regularly caring for 40-plus patients, with some spilling over into other areas of the hospital. Laurie Sutphin is a nurse here.

LAURIE SUTPHIN: One of the nurses said something - she misses seeing her patients get better and walk out of here.

BOLTON: That's happening less and less?

SUTPHIN: Yeah.

BOLTON: Sutphin says the onslaught of unvaccinated COVID patients just isn't sustainable.

SUTPHIN: The worst thing is that we had so much hope when the vaccine came out. We thought we'd never be here again.

BOLTON: Dr. Scott Ellner, Billings Clinic's CEO, says he's now so short of people to care for patients that he has to rely on traveling staff that cost $100 to $300 an hour.

SCOTT ELLNER: The challenge is that if we don't, we're not going to be able to serve our communities.

BOLTON: The Montana Hospital Association asked Governor Gianforte to use federal COVID relief dollars to hire medical staff to work in hospitals across the state. He declined but says his administration is helping hospitals get some federal reimbursement to hire travelers if they can find them on their own. In last month, he sent 140 National Guard troops to help with nonclinical work. Governor Gianforte declined to be interviewed for this story. Montana's vaccination rate is inching up, but it's still less than 50% of residents. In the meantime, hospitals like Billings Clinic say they are inching closer to rationing care.

For NPR News, I'm Aaron Bolton in Billings, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.