Jen Doty

Sidney Health Center staff (left to right): Jen Doty, CEO; Dr. Rajohn Karanjai, Chief Medical Officer; and Pam McGlothlin, RN, Senior Executive Nursing Services in a June 2020 photo.

Sidney Health Center is filled to capacity, senior-level officials at Richland County’s largest medical facility confirmed.

The overflow of patients at Sidney Health Center coincides with a recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases reported by the Richland County Health Department.

However, a spokesperson for Sidney Health Center made clear the facility is at capacity due to the high level of patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 throughout the state, not just in Richland County.

“The hospital is full,” said Jennifer ‘Jen’ Doty, CEO of Sidney Health Center. “But our hospital is not full of Covid patients.”

The distinction is important.

Rumors that a recent wedding and an unrelated birthday party for a local nurse may have caused a “super” outbreak — or spread of coronavirus in the community — are unconnected to the fact that Sidney Health Center is currently filled to capacity, hospital officials said.

Doty made clear Sidney Health Center is at capacity because of standard but extreme medical treatments unrelated to COVID-19.

“We’re at capacity,” said Doty. “We still have to take care of all other diseases and needs.”

The facility has a 25-bed maximum capacity for handling patients with extreme medical conditions that require overnight treatment — from heart attacks to kidney failure to childbirth.

In addition, Doty said there has been a recent increase in the number of patients seeking treatment for possible COVID-19-related conditions.

Under normal circumstances, the CEO said Sidney Health Center has one or two patients requiring overnight observation due specifically to coronavirus symptoms.

Recently, the facility has seen a rise in the number of patients with COVID-19 symptoms. However, the number of coronavirus patients requiring overnight observation is less than four, according to Doty. Although this represents up to 12% of patients with serious conditions, two or three patients with positive COVID-19 symptoms is not an extraordinary number relative to the area’s overall population.

Doty pointed out the increased number of COVID-19 positive cases throughout the state has made it challenging for Sidney Health Center.

Typically, Sidney Health Center sends patients with a “higher level of care” needs to larger hospitals in Billings or Great Falls. Or patients are sent to medical facilities in neighboring North Dakota, Doty explained.

Those hospitals are full, she said. Normally, they are available to handle Sidney patients with extreme medical needs — such as heart attacks or kidney failure. Therefore, it places a strain on the statewide system of medical providers.

There is a direct correlation between the rise in COVID-19 positive-tested cases throughout Montana and the ability of medical facilities in larger cities like Billings to handle patients from smaller areas like Sidney.

“Hospitals that are normally available are full,” Doty said. “We can’t transfer people out to tertiary hospitals. We have to increase our spread of hospitals and we might have to send patients out of state.”

Doty said some patients with extreme medical conditions are being transferred as far away as Colorado. She confirmed this is directly related to the increase in COVID-19 positive cases throughout Montana.

In addition to the excess capacity of patients with positive COVID-19 symptoms, each occupied bed requires staffing.

The health-care CEO was unable to confirm if recent rumors that a Sidney Health Center nurse may be responsible for a recent outbreak of COVID-19 in Richland County. However, Doty said hospital staff have been infected.

“We’ve had staff that had to be quarantined,” Doty said, adding, it’s vital to “keep our workforce healthy.”

Concerning other possible causes of a recent surge in coronavirus-related cases in the community, Doty said the Richland County Health Department is responsible for keeping track of possible cases and ensuring the hospital is well-informed.

For the community, this means it is important to understand the local hospital is full, Doty said.

“If you have a need that requires a higher level of care, we may have to send you four hours away,” the CEO said, noting four hours is normal under routine circumstances. With the upsurge in statewide COVID-19 positive-tested cases, however, Doty said people should be prepared to travel farther than Billings — possibly even to another state.

She also explained that Sidney Health Center has numerous contingency plans in the event of a local outbreak of COVID-19.

“We have plans for a surge capacity,” Doty confirmed. “It’s an everyday, evolving situation.”

For now, with the number of COVID-19 positive-tested cases in Richland County still at a reasonably manageable level, Sidney Health Center is relying on local and state health department officials to keep it apprised of any potential surge.

Doty’s advice to everyone in the community is to follow healthcare experts’ and health department officials’ advice about COVID-19.

“What hospitals do know and promote is to encourage everyone to wear masks and avoid large gatherings,” Doty said, noting the hospital is focused on all types of severe illnesses — not just COVID-19.

“Sidney Health Center is here to serve everyone,” Doty said.

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