CEO of Montana hospital, which lost a doctor to Covid, says he expects Thanksgiving-related surge

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Dr. Scott Ellner, the chief executive of a Montana health system that is already “at or beyond capacity,” told CNBC on Monday plans were in place to handle an increase of Covid-19 patients stemming from Thanksgiving gatherings.

“In Montana, our community, our people believe in their personal freedoms, and we expect to see a surge from the Thanksgiving weekend,” said Ellner, whose not-for-profit Billings Clinic also serves Wyoming and the western Dakotas. Health experts have warned that indoor holiday get-togethers could worsen an already-accelerating U.S. coronavirus outbreak this fall.

“We’ve actually reached out to assisted living facilities who are able to care for patients that we’ll place outside of our hospital,” Ellner added in a “Squawk on the Street” interview. “We’re also partnering with our critical access hospitals across the state who are affiliates with Billings Clinic, and they’ve been taking patients as well.”

The health system, which is based in Montana’s largest city, has taken various other steps to add hospital capacity in response to an “exponential rise” in coronavirus cases in November, Ellner said. The state has 61,801 confirmed infections, nearly half of which have been recorded in the past month, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Hospitalizations have risen sharply in Montana in the past two months. On Oct. 1, there were 178 patients with Covid-19 currently hospitalized, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project, which is run by journalists at The Atlantic. As of Sunday, 461 patients were hospitalized in the state.

Signage outside the Billings Clinic in Billings, Montana, Nov. 11, 2020.

Lynn Donaldson | Bloomberg | Getty Images

“We’re at or beyond capacity,” Ellner said. “We’re making every possible infrastructure, including more airflow rooms. We’ve added over 90 rooms that have negative airflow. We’ve expanded offices to create ICU capacity, and we’ve created double occupancy so that we can allow patients to be together in one room to meet the needs.”

The intensifying outbreak of Covid-19 also has taken a personal toll on the staff of the health system, Ellner said.

“The most sobering thing that we saw, actually this past weekend, was unfortunately that we lost one of our physicians to Covid, so this is really hitting our workforce, our Billings Clinic family pretty hard,” he said.

Staffing levels at hospitals have been a concern across the fall surge in Covid-19 cases, as dense epidemics in many states threatened the availability of extra workers to help out in hard-hit areas. “What we don’t have is the rich depth of staffing that other, more urban states have. That is our biggest challenge,” Rich Rasmussen, CEO of the Montana Hospital Association, told CNBC earlier this month.

Ellner, a surgeon who previously taught at University of Connecticut School of Medicine, said the staff of Billings Clinic are continuing to provide top-notch treatment despite the strain. “It’s just a lot of work, with wearing more personal protective equipment, and these patients are so severely ill that it requires a lot more effort and time to care for these acute patients,” he said. “We are able to provide absolutely great quality. It’s just a matter of adding more to the workforce to meet the burden of these extremely ill patients.”

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