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Navy Surgeon General visits team deployed to Billings Clinic

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Navy Surgeon General

Billings Clinic CEO Scott Ellner, left, greets Navy Surgeon General Bruce Gillingham during a meeting with Navy team members working at the hospital on Tuesday.

U.S. Navy Surgeon General, Rear Admiral Bruce Gillingham, visited Billings Clinic Tuesday to meet the Navy members who have been deployed to the hospital for nearly two weeks.  

The 20 Navy members arrived Nov. 11 and are comprised of nurses, respiratory therapists and medical doctors. All have helped in vaccination clinics, viral triage units; the emergency department; the intensive care unit, which has been operating well above capacity for months; monoclonal antibody treatment; and other areas throughout the hospital, said Billings Clinic CEO Dr. Scott Ellner.

“We’re just incredibly pleased with the great effort, the teamwork the collaboration with our health care workforce,” Ellner said. “Thank you for helping Billings Clinic. It’s incredibly meaningful to us right now.”

Ellner emphasized that the Navy team provided a much needed moral boost for exhausted staff.

“It gives (staff) a sense that we’re here for them--that we’re covering them. Our workforce is being challenged right now with the fact that we’re having a shortage in the country with people working in health care,” Ellner said.

COVID cases have surged in Montana since late summer. Hospitalizations started steadily increasing in late July and peaked in October, which brought at least two record breaking days, one with 510 hospitalizations and another for the most COVID related deaths, 17 in a day.

From July 6 to Oct. 18, the peak of the surge, cases increased 2,677% and hospitalizations increased 936%.

During the week ending Nov. 12, just after the Navy support team arrived, 4,050 new COVID cases were recorded in the state. Montana was also averaging 374 COVID inpatients a day. The Monday that followed, Billings Clinic reported 50 COVID-positive inpatients with 18 in the ICU and 11 on ventilators.

“The primary mission of the Department of Defense is homeland defense, first and foremost, and right now the biggest threat our country faces is this very lethal virus, and so it makes perfect sense that we would bring the expertise of our medical teams here,” said Gillingham.

In Gillingham’s 38-year career in the Navy, his deployments have been to combat zones. The COVID-19 pandemic is the first time he’s assisted in a public health crisis on home soil and he asked the public to help out the response teams by getting vaccinated.

“The way that the general public could really help this effort, to help us get through this crisis, is to go ahead and get vaccinated,” Gillingham said.

Vaccination mandates for health care workers loom as a Dec. 6, 2021 deadline for a first dose approaches. Billings Clinic intends to comply with the law, meaning those who decide not to get vaccinated will no longer be employed at the hospital without a religious or health exemption, potentially exacerbating shortages before an anticipated spike in cases following the holidays.

“The challenge is going to be that in the state of Montana, people will choose their personal freedoms whether they’re medical or religious and we understand that...If they don’t (get vaccinated) we’re going to be in a situation where we may lose really good people, people that have been loyal to Billings Clinic for years," Ellner said.

Ellner has seen a rise in vaccinations among staff in the last few days, making him hopeful the mandate won’t severely hobble a team that's already stretched thin.

The hospital will work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, FEMA, and the state to determine when team's mission will end. 

Though numbers have come down slightly, Ellner doesn’t think “Billings Clinic is out of the woods yet” as the hospital is caring for very sick patients and administering vaccinations and monoclonal antibody treatment as often as possible.

Ellner would like to see the team stay for another couple weeks, but is sensitive to the recent COVID surges in the Midwest and Northeast. Michigan, Minnesota and New Hampshire are all COVID hot spots with Michigan reporting their highest caseloads since the pandemic began.

“This is something that we have to recognize as a nation that we have to come together as a community to deal with the situation…One key way to do that is to get vaccinated. Look beyond self, and look at the community, look at family and that’s how we’re going to get through this,” Gillingham said.

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