(The Oregon National Guard has been deployed to assist in the four St. Charles hospitals | Photo Courtesy of St. Charles Hospital System)
Though the Oregon hospitals are overtaxed and overwhelmed, there is a program in place — besides the COVID-19 vaccine — that has provided another much-needed shot in the arm for weary staffs: 142 members of the Oregon National Guard have been deployed in Central Oregon, with 128 of them at the four St. Charles Health System hospitals, to help with non-medical tasks and lend a helping hand.
“We’re tremendously grateful for the Oregon National Guard troops who have left their families and jobs to support our four hospitals. By stepping in to fill nonclinical roles, the troops are allowing our caregivers to work at the top of their licenses,” says Lisa Goodman, public information and government affairs officer for St. Charles Health System. “The troops are filling a variety of roles that are critical to our operations. Some examples include screening people for COVID symptoms at hospital entrances, running supplies, delivering food and performing fit testing for N95 masks.”
LTC Brian Dukes, the Central Oregon COVID Response Task Force commander for the Oregon National Guard, says the mission is off to a great start, and integration with the partners at St. Charles Health has gone smoothly. “Our members seem to be really embracing our roles in the various St. Charles facilities,” he says. “An activation like this can be stressful for soldiers, families and employers, but our soldiers hit the ground ready to serve the mission they’ve been called to. I can’t say how proud I am of their professionalism.”
Dukes says the soldiers, who are covering both day and night shifts, are helping with a wide variety of hospital support, from cleaning, logistics and food services to assisting providers and conducting data entry for ER intake. “There are the normal minor challenges associated with integrating nearly 128 soldiers into their new roles on multiple shifts across four facilities in less than 48 hours from when they reported for activation, but it has really gone well.”
The assistance from the Guard comes at a time when the St. Charles Hospital System continues to break records for the number of positive COVID cases in the community. “For the first time since the pandemic started, we saw more than 1,100 positive cases in Central Oregon in a seven-day period ending August 23,” reports Goodman. In a press release issued by St. Charles in August, Aaron Adams, president of St. Charles Bend and Redmond, said, “Our hospitals are in crisis. We want to take care of people, but right now, we need their help.”
The press release stated that in the past few weeks, St. Charles has been forced to cancel many patients’ much-needed surgeries to make room for the seriously ill. The hospital has been operating over capacity with inpatient beds full, and in early August, there were as many as 17 people “boarding” in the Emergency Department, which means they were admitted to the hospital but were stuck in the ED while they waited for an inpatient bed to open up. “This overflow is taxing the Bend Emergency Department, which has 28 exam rooms,” the report states. “As a result, ED caregivers are seeing patients in makeshift areas such as hallways and waiting rooms.”
“I said in May we were dealing with the most critical capacity issues in my 27 years at St. Charles,” says Debbie Robinson, the hospital’s chief nursing officer. “It has only gotten worse in the past three months.”
The hospital reports that the latest COVID surge is not the only factor contributing to the current crisis: During the early months of COVID-19, many people were unable to access routine and preventive health-care services, resulting in hospitals around the country being busier than ever now, treating a higher-than-normal number of patients who are seriously ill. Injuries have also added to the problem. “Central Oregon is growing fast, and as it does, more people are getting hurt here,” the press release states. “In the past, the health system has typically averaged about 1,200 trauma visits per year. In 2021, it’s on pace to hit 1,600.” The report goes on to say that at the same time hospitals are seeing more and sicker patients, they are also struggling to shore up the workforce. “It has become difficult to replace health-care workers at the same rate they are leaving the industry due to early retirements and burnout. And locally, the increasing cost of housing is proving to be a major barrier for potential hires.”
To help diffuse the strain, St. Charles has opened an urgent care clinic in the Bend East Family Care building at 2600 NE Neff Road, and is offering drive-through COVID-19 testing in the back of the parking lot of that building. Both services are available from 8am-4pm daily and will be expanded as need arises and resources allow. The hospital is also urging patients who do not need an emergency level of care to avoid the Emergency Department at this time, and has asked that community providers send appropriate patients to primary or urgent care facilities first when at all possible.
“This is bigger than COVID,” says Dr. Jeff Absalon, St. Charles’ chief physician officer. “There is a cascading effect that is causing incredible strain on the health system.” He says that in order to help curtail the crisis, everyone needs to be proactive in taking care of their health. “Eat well. Make sure to exercise your body. Take your medication as prescribed,” he says, adding, “See your primary care provider and stay on track with your checkups and preventive screenings.”
Depending upon how the situation continues to unfold, the Oregon National Guard will be stationed at the hospitals through September 30. “I expect we will be needed through that time, and there’s no indication as to whether the mission could be extended,” says Dukes. “We have received incredible support from everyone at St. Charles Health and the community. I am humbled to hear the continuous thanks from the staff throughout the hospital, when they are the ones who have been dealing with these strains on the health-care system for a year and a half.” He adds, “It’s really our honor to come in and support them.”
Dukes says the other “unsung heroes” in National Guard activations are the families and employers of the deployed troops. “Over half of our soldiers are from outside of the local area, so that means moms, dads, family and friends are picking up the slack in those households,” he says. “National Guard soldiers cannot continue to do what they do without their employers’ support, and that is not an easy thing for many of our employers.”
Goodman says the St. Charles staff is hopeful that the FDA approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on August 23 will encourage more people to get vaccinated and ultimately ease the surge in cases. “The vaccine has met the high standards for safety, efficacy and manufacturing quality the FDA requires of an approved product,” she says. In the meantime, she adds, “We can’t say it enough: Please wear a mask and, if you haven’t already, get vaccinated.”