MISSOULA — Former Montana football player Vince Huntsberger still goes through a complex routine in preparing to battle the opposition.
Only now, his field isn’t the gridiron, where he was sometimes the last line of defense as a safety who was the school's all-time tackles leader until this year, but the medical field, where he’s on the front line tackling the coronavirus. To do that, the Libby native piles on personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, goggles and sometimes even a battery-operated respirator instead of football gear.
It’s a time-consuming, precautionary process for the recent Grizzly Sports Hall of Fame inductee who has a unique perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic. But it’s what the job full of worry but hope has come to require — and there’s no skipping steps.
“It’s almost kind of like going back to football,” Huntsberger joked after completing a recent eight-hour shift at Bonner General Health in Sandpoint, Idaho. “I go through it in my brain every day.”
Huntsberger is nearly two decades removed from a playing career in which he was a high school quarterback-turned-college safety who became a three-time All-American, two-time Big Sky defensive MVP, Buck Buchanan Award finalist, Heisman Trophy vote-getter and 2001 FCS national champion. He now finds his adrenaline rush by working in the emergency department for the past seven years, getting promoted to the medical director of the department this past September.
The situation at his hospital, like many around the country, has been made more dire in the past several weeks. Fortunately, Huntsberger hasn’t been overrun with coronavirus patients, having four confirmed cases in Bonner County out of the 1,609 in the state, which has had 41 deaths. He feels his community in northern Idaho with a population of about 9,000 people appears to be following stay-at-home orders and complying with wearing masks when going outside.
Huntsberger has been able to stay in the emergency department through the crisis, mostly dealing with normal issues such as sprained ankles, broken fingers or abdominal pain. Some ear, nose and throat surgeons have been moved to the emergency department to help with COVID-19 screening and testing, recently performing eight to 10 tests in one day. Huntsberger hasn't had to personally take care of an infected patient yet, although the waiting period to get back a test can cause some concern about having been exposed
“It’s stressful,” Huntsberger said. “Everybody’s feeling this. It’s really hard on everyone. It’s really taxing, but I hope we can save a lot of lives, and I hope we can reduce the burden of the disease.”
The emergency department has gone from 12-hour to eight-hour shifts four days a week partly because of the expectation they could see a surge in patients with coronavirus, placing more intense demands on doctors and nurses. The shorter days also make it more bearable because all doctors at Bonner General Health are wearing N95 masks for their entire shift.
The N95 masks are designed to be used just once, Huntsberger said, but they’re short on personal protective equipment. So after a shift, they put the mask in a marked paper bag, wait five days to use it again and use it five total times, following CDC recommendations. They also use goggles, hair coverings, gloves and sometimes a face shield.
When treating patients with COVID-19 or who are highly suspicious of having it, they wear a PAPR, which is a battery-powered respirator with an air filter, along with donning a gown, a hood, two sets of gloves and boot covers. They go through daily simulations with nurses in case they need to get into that gear to deal with someone who has COVID-19, like putting them on a breathing machine.
“We’re reusing masks, we’re reusing gowns, we’re reusing all this stuff, which is not ideal,” Huntsberger said. “No one wants it, but we’ve seen where people run out when they get a lot of patients. Even in small community like Sandpoint, Idaho, if we get some cases in our community and it gets passed around, we could see an influx, and we’re not a huge facility, so we don’t have a lot of capacity to treat hundreds of patients.”
Taking off the equipment is even more of a delicate process because they could be covered in the virus. They have a lab tech or nurse observe them while removing the equipment in a trailer outside the emergency department to make sure they don’t touch their skin or have ripped any equipment that could lead to exposure.
Huntsberger will bring a sealed bag of clothes to the hospital that he’ll change into at the end of his shift after showering. He leaves what he wore during work at the facility. He’ll also wipe down his phone multiple times throughout the day with a bleach wipe.
That’s all done in hopes that he and other doctors don’t bring the disease home to their families. Huntsberger’s wife, Amelia, is also a doctor, an OBGYN, at Bonner General Health and Sandpoint Women’s Clinic. There, elective surgeries were canceled and in-person visits between doctors and OB patients are mostly limited to virtual meetings.
The two met at medical school at the University of Washington, where Vince went after going undrafted, having unsuccessful NFL tryouts, coaching at Central Missouri State and playing for the AFL’s Billings Outlaws. They did their residencies at the University of Michigan, moved to Idaho afterward and now have three kids — Luke, 8, Alina, 5, and Levi, 3 — so they’re extra cautious in making sure they don’t bring home the disease.
“That’s everybody’s worry, especially for health-care workers,” Huntsberger said. “We’re at a huge risk of getting the disease. It’s a daily struggle for us with my family and my children and people across the world, especially when you’re there eight hours or have known positive patients you’re seeing in the emergency department or you don’t know but have a high suspicion.”
Getting into the hospital to work is its own process. The doctors, nurses, staff and patients go through a checkpoint where temperatures are taken and they’re asked about having a fever, cough, shortness of breath or known COVID-19 exposure.
The hospital has a nurse or an ENT doctor doing the screening outside under one of two tents set up on a grassy area. If a patient isn’t extremely sick, they can be seen outside or even in their car for their entire visit. If they have coronavirus or are believed to, they’ll go into a negative pressure room in the hospital, where the airflow goes in and out of just that room, not throughout the hospital’s main airflow system.
Three such negative pressure rooms have been set up in Huntsberger’s emergency department alone. Some rooms in the hospital have been outfitted with negative-pressure pods. An air scrubber in the room reduces exposure to whoever enters.
Huntsberger is included in discussions about setting up those rooms now because he’s the emergency department medical director and has taken on more administrative responsibilities. He and other department chairs have regular meetings that have also recently included talking about where to build new beds in the hospital, going through updates on COVID-19 testing and looking for spaces around town to use as a temporary hospital if they get overrun with cases.
“We’re constantly doing these things to prepare for worst and hope for the best,” Huntsberger said.
To flatten the curve, he recommends people continue to wash their hands, maintain social distancing and stay at home as much as possible to reduce potential exposure. Huntsberger also suggests only going to a hospital if you’re definitely sick or injured.
“The things we’re having to go through as a country and world are bad, but I do think we’ll save a lot of lives if we follow those basic tenets,” he said.
For sports to come back, Huntsberger points to several factors because a vaccine could still be far off: Mass testing for the virus, a quicker turnaround in getting test results, mass antibody testing and a decrease in the number of cases are the primary needs.
At his hospital, it recently took five days to get results of a COVID-19 test, still a lengthy turnaround but better than the 10 days it previously had been.
“Until we get these reliable, quick tests to know the true prevalence of the disease around the country, you’re going to have to wait on sports and mass gatherings,” Huntsberger said. “It’s going to be hard to know when that time is. Even if you look back at previous pandemics, even after the initial pandemic or the disease being out there, it’s going to be out there a while, it doesn’t go away, it doesn’t just last two months and all of a sudden the virus dies off.
“We can’t take that risk yet. We’re not there yet. We don’t have a good understanding of the prevalence, how much is out there, or how it acts. We’re still learning so much about the coronavirus.”
Huntsberger isn’t ready to call off the college football season yet, believing there could be those advancements by the time preseason practices and camps would normally begin in August. He’s optimistic but still cautious.
“I think it’s too far out for people to cancel that yet,” he said. “I think we’d be back, but I’ve never been through a pandemic, and I’ve never seen anything like the coronavirus. Time will tell. We’re still not at that point where we can test rapidly and know what people have.
“You can’t put 25,000 people in Washington-Griz stadium, and if there’s 100 of them as asymptomatic carriers, what you’re going to get is a whole bunch of people sick in a very short period of time. That’s not a safe thing to do. I would hope by then we’ll have a good idea of what we’re dealing with and be able to loosen the social distancing and get back to mass gatherings and enjoy our lives like we have before this showed up.”
How long it takes to return to normal is a process no one currently knows. Things may not entirely return to the way they were, but Huntsberger believes they’ll slowly trend in that direction.
“Over time, I think we’ll get back to a normal, but things like this will change society as a whole,” he said. “It’ll change medicine as a whole, politics as a whole. This is going to have all kinds of ramifications good and bad when you go down the road with something as severe as this.”
Whenever the Griz return to the football field, games will be won and lost, records will get broken and teammates will form bonds. Right now, Huntsberger and doctors around the world are teammates all battling the coronavirus.
Players will also continue to emerge as heroes among their fan base, much like Huntsberger did while suiting up between 1998-2001. Now he and those new teammates of his are a different type of hero, even though it doesn’t come with the thunderous applause he heard in Washington-Grizzly Stadium — and even though he humbly declines to call himself one.
“There are definitely heroes out there,” Huntsberger said. “I don’t look at myself as that. I look at it as this is what we signed up to do and we want to do everything we can to make ourselves safe while we’re doing this.
“It’s been hard, and it’s been stressful, and I think a lot of people in medicine are heroes. But I think it’s one of those things where we knew what we were getting into in medicine. This is something where we need to help our communities, and that’s what we’re here for.”