LA GRANDE — As cases of COVID-19 continued to rise in Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown on Aug. 13 issued an emergency order to deploy nearly 1,500 Oregon National Guard soldiers throughout the state to help support hospitals.
In Eastern Oregon, only the Blue Mountain Hospital District in Grant County has received any of those resources.
As of Friday, Aug. 27, several hospitals in Northeastern Oregon have not sent in a request for National Guard support, according to Oregon Health Authority officials. Those hospitals include CHI St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton, Grande Ronde Hospital in La Grande, Good Shepherd Medical Center in Hermiston and Pioneer Memorial Hospital in Heppner.
According to an OHA spokesperson, Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Baker City was one of the few hospitals to put in a request for guard members. The soldiers would provide support in clinical and nonclinical roles. The hospital chain — which serves Baker City, Ontario and Boise — requested six soldiers to assist in Ontario. It was not known how many soldiers were requested for the Baker City location.
Wallowa County on Aug. 25 requested Oregon National Guard support, according to Brooke Pace, director of communications and public relations at Wallowa Memorial Hospital. The request came 12 days after Brown’s announcement about deploying Oregon National Guard soldiers to hospitals during the recent surge of COVID-19.
In Grant County, several members of the Oregon National Guard have already begun assisting operations in the Blue Mountain Hospital District. The hospital is among only 11 hospitals in Oregon to receive support from the nearly 500 national guard members currently activated. Officials with the Oregon National Guard have indicated roughly 20 more hospitals will be bolstered by an additional 1,000 guard members by next week, with numbers varying based on need.
Soldiers’ tasks include assisting in support roles, such as entrance screeners, janitorial services and security for the hospital, as well as providing logistical relief for overworked health care staff who have been on the front lines of the pandemic for nearly two years.
“We have staff burnout. They have been working very long, stressful hours, and we are looking for ways to help our staff out as they face this next wave of COVID-19,” said Mark Snider, public relations and digital strategy coordinator at Saint Alphonsus Health System in Baker City.
Soldiers with the Oregon National Guard are serving in support roles in Josephine County in Southern Oregon, which has experienced the fastest growing outbreaks of COVID-19 in the United States within the past two weeks.
“The goal is to help these hospitals with nonclinical support staff,” said Maj. Chris Clyne, public affairs officer with the Oregon National Guard.
Mardi Ford, director of communications and marketing at Grande Ronde Hospital, said that the situation at the hospital is fluid — while they haven’t needed support from the National Guard yet, that situation could change.
“Yes, we are short staffed, but at this point we have contingencies locally and at the state level for bringing in support and are in the process of working through all of that if needed,” Ford said in an email.
According to Ford, the situation in Union County is not as dire as it is in Southern Oregon, but GRH is monitoring the situation closely.
“Right now, we are managing. But it requires daily — often hourly — oversight,” Ford said.
Hospitals in Eastern Oregon have reported staffing issues and are looking to add several dozen workers to their ranks. As of Aug. 26, Grande Ronde Hospital had 63 positions available on its career webpage, while St. Anthony had 57 open positions. Ontario had 41 open positions, Wallowa Memorial Hospital had 31 and Baker City St. Alphonsus Medical Center had 28 open positions.
More than 1,600 new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Northeastern Oregon between Aug. 11 and Aug. 26. Region 9, which encompasses Morrow, Umatilla, Wallowa, Union, Baker, Grant and Malheur counties, during that time reported five available staffed intensive care unit beds. Jackson and Josephine counties in Southern Oregon reported having only one ICU bed available. On Aug. 27, Region 9 reported the same situation: only one available staffed ICU bed.
As hospitalizations increase throughout the state, the stress it puts on normal operations at hospitals is immense. Grande Ronde Hospital in Union County reported last week it had to transfer a patient to Montana because there wasn’t enough space available at the 25-bed hospital.
“As the volumes continue to rise statewide and as facilities elsewhere in the state become overrun and start looking for other locations to transfer patients,” Snider said, “they turn to smaller locations like Baker City.”