HELENA — On Thursday, medical and nursing organizations representing thousands of Montana healthcare workers came together with a unified message urging people to get vaccinated and wear a mask to knock down COVID numbers, protect communities, and help keep kids in schools this fall.
“We want to avoid the path of other regions in our country where these numbers have become so large and are putting untenable stress on their schools and health care systems,” said Dr. Pamela Cutler, president of the Montana Medical Association (MMA).
MMA was joined by more than a dozen Montana-based healthcare organizations strongly supporting data and science-driven measures this fall. Those measures include: getting vaccinated against COVID-19, wearing a mask indoors while case numbers are high, and masking for grades K-12 this fall.
“We are united in urging Montanans to takes action now to crush the climb in COVID-19 cases. Our message is based on research, facts, and proven scientific data. We want to say to Montanans make choices based on good medical facts, just like you would cancer or a heart attack,” noted Cutler.
With continued COVID cases growth in the last month, Montana is in another wave of the pandemic The seven-day average in the state is more than 300 daily cases, and 60 deaths have been reported since July 19.
The medical professionals warn if nothing changes, COVID-19 will impact schools. The greater the case numbers the more likely it is for kids to become infected which can lead to quarantining on not just the student, but their classroom.
“Kids have already sacrificed so much during the pandemic. Many have struggled with remote school and not everyone has had access to internet or technology,” said Dr. Lauren Wilson, vice president of the Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“School is not only important for education but also for social and emotional health. Part of a child’s normal development involves interacting with peers in person So the best thing we can do with our kids is to keep school in session, is to do our best to make it safe for them to attend.”
The medical professionals noted the vaccine is currently not available to all school-age children. Masks help limit spread in a group setting, meaning less chance of an outbreak.
“We should also be aware that in every Montana community there are kids with disabilities, kids with chronic illness, kids with obesity, kids with immunodeficiencies that are especially at risk from this virus and they deserve a safe school environment too,” added Wilson.
Another point the health profession wanted to get across is how limited and exhausted medical personnel are in the state right now. Montana has been facing nurse staffing shortages for a while, which have only been made worse due to the pandemic.
“[Registered nurse] vacancy rates are increasing and travel nurse vacancy is increasing, that’s even if employers can secure them,” said Vicky Byrd, MSN, RN, Montana Nurses Association CEO.
Byrd noted that Montana hospitals and long-term care facilities are utilizing the state mutual aid system for disaster relief, calling for nurses to deploy across the state to staff those facilities.
“Montana nurses are exhausted, but we’re very resilient. They experienced the COVID wave last year and responded by working overtime, compromising their family time, and working understaffed their vacation and time off was canceled to care for you,” added Byrd.
The medical and nursing organizations also expressed frustration from House Bill 702, passed by the Montana Legislature this year, which prohibits Montana medical institutions and nursing homes from requiring vaccinations of any kind from their staff on the grounds of discrimination.
Requiring certain vaccinations had been common practice by medical organizations depending on the job to help ensure the safety of patients, such as nurses and doctors that work with dialysis patients to have hepatitis B vaccination due to how aggressively the virus attacks the liver.
President Biden announced Wednesday his administration plans to withhold Medicaid and Medicare funding from nursing homes that do not have fully vaccinated staff. HB 702 does have an exemption that would allow Montana nursing homes to require vaccinations and not violate state law, but it is creating a difficult situation for employers.
“This is the very issue we mentioned during the legislature where you would have a federal policy contravene with state policy, and that’s where we are today,” explained MHA President and CEO Rich Rasmussen. “It does put nursing homes in a difficult position of following federal law now and having it conflict with state law. So each organization is going to have to measure how they’re going to have to comply with this.”
Long-term care facilities MTN spoke with, who chose not to go on the record so they can discuss the matter directly with employees first, said that federal funding is critical to operations, but worry the vaccine holdouts will quit rather than get vaccinated. For those facilities, any person leaving is a huge detriment due to being short-staffed.
“This is starting with nursing homes. Everyone is waiting to see if this will be extended to hospitals,” noted Rasmusen.
HB 702 exemption is only for licensed nursing homes, long-term care facilities or assisted living facilities. Hospitals and medical clinics are not included in the language of the law.
The organizations involved in the joint message to Montanans on Thursday were: the Montana Medical Association, Montana Nurses Association, Montana Academy of Physician Assistants, Montana Hospital Association, Association of Montana Public Health Officers, Montana Academy of Family Physicians, Montana Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Montana College of Physicians, Montana Primary Care Association, Montana Pharmacy Association, Montana Chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians, Montana Chapter of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Montana Association of Pediatric Psychiatrists, Montana Chapter of the American College of Cardiology, Montana Psychiatric Association, Behavioral Health Alliance of Montana, Montana Orthopedic Society, and the Montana Speech-Language and Hearing Association.