Oregon Hospitals Dig In For Long COVID-19 Surge

St. Charles Health System Bend.JPG

Oregon’s COVID-19 delta surge is far from finished.  

Hospitals across the state continue to make plans and put in requests for staff and equipment as the pandemic continues, state records show. In a grim reminder of the pandemic’s toll, St. Charles Health System has set up a 17-foot refrigerated trailer that will serve as a mobile morgue at the nonprofit system’s Bend hospital. 

The trailer arrived at the hospital last week, hospital officials said Wednesday. It’s now in use. 

Lack of body storage capacity “has been a known gap in our emergency preparedness for a number of years,” said Lara Simpson, St. Charles’ supply chain director. “With this recent COVID-19 surge, we just finally hit that critical point where we needed to do something.” The Oregon Health Authority on Wednesday reported 26 new COVID-19-related deaths statewide, bringing the pandemic’s toll up to 3,649. Statewide, there are 939 Oregonians in the hospital with COVID-19, with 270 of them in intensive care beds. Just 6% of Oregon hospitals’ adult intensive care beds are available — 39 out of 649. And, 7% of adult non-intensive care beds are available across the state — 315 out of 4,272. 

The hospitalizations take a toll on hospitals in Bend and elsewhere across Oregon. At St. Charles’ Bend hospital, its original 1970s-era morgue is big enough for just three corpses. 

The new mobile morgue is large enough for 24. 

Hospital officials said that on three recent occasions, the number of corpses has exceeded the older morgue’s capacity. Deceased people were kept elsewhere in the hospital until funeral homes could transport them, Simpson said.

In one seven-day period, 19 people died at the hospital. Thirteen of them had COVID-19.

“Sadly, this mobile morgue is a critical need right now,” Simpson said.

The health system paid $82,000 for the mobile morgue, which can run off electricity and a diesel generator. The Deschutes County Board of Commissioners will discuss whether to use federal COVID-19 relief funds to buy the trailer from St. Charles for future emergencies, such as natural disasters.

Staff extensions requested

St. Charles Health System has support from 130 Oregon National Guard troops and 114 traveling health care workers through the state’s contract with Jogan Health, which is supplying hospitals with relief workers. 

Lisa Goodman, a spokeswoman for St. Charles, said her organization is asking the state to extend its commitment of the health care workers and National Guard troops beyond the original time frame. 

The Jogan travelers are committed through Oct. 23, and St. Charles Health System has requested they stay longer, Goodman said, adding that they haven’t yet received an answer. It’s unclear how long a potential extension may last. At this point, the Oregon Health Authority has not approved an extension, said Liz Merah, a spokesperson for Gov. Kate Brown’s office. 

“However, we are continuously assessing health care staffing needs across the state,” Merah said.

Oregon National Guard troops were originally committed through Sept. 30, Goodman said, adding that it appears likely they will stay through Oct. 31. 

Stephen Bomar, spokesperson for the Oregon Military Department, said the state has received federal funding to continue the COVID-19 mission support through Oct. 31. 

Troops were dispatched to hospitals in Oregon to primarily play a support role and do tasks such as prepare rooms, handle freight, serve in kitchens and logistics.

Through state-funded contracts in August, Jogan Health Solutions started providing about 500 health care workers to Oregon hospitals and AMN Healthcare sent about 60 to hospitals. Estimated costs that month were a not-to-exceed amount of $100 million for Jogan Health and nearly $20 million for AMN Healthcare. The state’s seeking federal reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Other Hospitals’ Needs 

Hospitals across the state have continued to seek equipment, such as oxygen and ventilators, as well as extra temporary staff, state data and interviews show.

“State resources including National Guard members and clinical personnel have been helpful, but unfortunately the staffing and capacity crisis is so severe that patient care is still affected,” said David Northfield, spokesperson for the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems. “We’ve all seen the stories of patients who can’t access the care they need right now. Statewide (COVID-19) infection rates are declining but are still way too high in parts of Oregon, so some hospitals and their staffs are still overburdened.” 

For example, Grande Ronde Hospital in La Grande, through Union County, asked the state for five registered nurses, two respiratory therapists, one medical technician and one radiology technician several weeks ago, state records show.

At this point, the hospital has received two radiology technicians, two respiratory therapists, three nursing assistants and three registered nurses.

“They are continuing a search for several more specialty registered nurses for us,” said hospital spokesperson Mardi Ford.

Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Ontario continues to need registered nurses, certified nursing assistants, phlebotomists and respiratory therapists, said Letty Ramirez, a spokesperson for Saint Alphonsus Health System.

The eastern Oregon hospital has requested and received the following: two emergency department registered nurses; three medical surgical registered nurses; a registered nurse case manager; two respiratory therapists; three certified nursing assistants; two emergency department technicians and unit clerks; a laboratory medical technician; a main operating room registered nurse circulator; and an operating room scrub technician.

The hospital has not yet received two intensive care unit registered nurses; two certified nursing assistants and a respiratory therapist it’s requested.

“Daily, we work with the State of Oregon to secure state-funded travelers,” Ramirez said in an email. “We are recruiting to fill our vacant positions. Leadership and other colleagues are helping staff work on the front-line when able.”

At Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Baker City, four additional traveling nurses are on hand to deal with the surge in patients. Another volunteer nurse is also helping, said Laura Huggins, the hospital’s marketing and foundation director. 

Hospital staff in Baker City, like others, struggle to find beds for patients in other facilities.

“It’s difficult times,” said Huggins. “It’s challenging.”

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.

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