Hospitals in Oregon Buckling Under Surge of COVID Patients

Andrew Selsky, Associated Press

August 13, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Patients left on beds in hospital hallways, their monitoring machines beeping away as too few doctors and nurses attend to an overload of emergencies. People diagnosed with cancer or heart disease desperately needing treatments, but being turned away.

Hospital staffers and public health managers in southern Oregon say it's never been this bad. And it's apt to get worse as the super-contagious delta variant of COVID-19 spreads through a region where fewer than half the residents have been fully vaccinated against the coronavirus.

"This is the worst condition our hospitals have seen, likely ever. I don't know that anyone could recall a time where we've had this much pressure on our health care system," Josephine County Public Health Manager Michael Weber told reporters Thursday.

The health care leaders got on a Zoom press conference with reporters to describe the dire situation, and to beg people to get vaccinated and wear masks.

"I implore you to wear a mask and get vaccinated, not just for your own protection, not just for your family, but for your neighbors and for the care and support of your medical teams," said Leona O'Keefe, deputy Josephine County health officer.

Doctors, nurses and other health care workers who are on the front lines are becoming overwhelmed as the case load surpasses even last year's peak of COVID-19 hospitalizations.

"It's heart-breaking. People are exhausted. You can see it in their eyes," said Dr. Jason Kuhl, chief medical officer for Providence Medical Center in Medford, Oregon. He described how patients who need care are forced to wait on gurneys in hallways, creating an obstacle course of beds and a cacophony of beeping monitoring machines.

Amanda Kotler, a registered nurse who is vice president of nursing at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, described seeing nurses who have hit the wall, emotionally and physically, as they try to care for patients, some of whom are dying.

"Imagine the physical exhaustion of being in PPE for 12-, 16-, 20-hour shifts. It's hot. You're caring for patients. You're struggling to keep them alive," Kotler said in the joint Zoom news conference.

The patients can't have visitors and family support, so nurses wind up facilitating phone conversations with their loved ones, "often when they're saying goodbye," she said.

Oregon Health Authority director Pat Allen said Wednesday that Oregon's record-setting COVID-19 hospitalization rate is filling hospitals statewide.

On Thursday, there were a record number of hospitalized patients with COVID-19 across Oregon, at 670. A total of 177 were in intensive care units, the OHA said.

"Our ICUs are full. Our doctors and nurses are exhausted and rightfully frustrated because this crisis is avoidable. It is like watching a train wreck coming and knowing that there's an opportunity to switch tracks, yet we feel helpless while we watch unnecessary loss of life," said David Zonies, associate chief medical officer at Portland's Oregon Health & Science University.

The hospitals are so overflowing in Jackson and Josephine counties, which lie along the California border, that health officials there have asked the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Emergency Management for a field hospital and more nurses.

"We still haven't heard anything," said Tanya Phillips, health promotion and preparedness manager for Jackson County Public Health.

Rudy Owens, an OHA spokesman, said in an email that the state agency is working with federal agencies to try to obtain mobile hospitals.

This surge is hitting like a tsunami, and comes after people thought the worst was over.

"When I think back, just a little over a month ago, we had zero positive cases in our hospital," said Chris Pizzi, CEO of Providence Medical Center in Medford. "And in just that short period of time, we have seen an escalation like we have never seen."

What caused the latest wave to hit Oregon so hard? The state had been seen largely as a success story, instituting lockdowns and a mask mandate, which was repealed at the end of June. The coronavirus came back with vengeance with its new variant.

"I think the lifting of the mask restrictions, the fact that we have one of the lowest vaccination rates in all of the state here in our county has really contributed significantly to the problems that we're seeing right now," Pizzi said.