GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — As COVID-19 continued its deadly sweep through Josephine County, things were not going well Wednesday at Asante Three Rivers Medical Center in Grants Pass.
The outpatient center was housing inpatients, the 125-bed hospital held 146 patients, and half of all patients — 78 — had COVID-19, with 91% of them unvaccinated, according to hospital officials attending a midday online press conference.
“This is a very concerning time for all of us,” said hospital CEO Win Howard. “This is very, very serious. We are in an absolute full-blown health care crisis.”
As Howard spoke, Oregon National Guard soldiers were on the medical center’s campus helping with nonclinical duties, 110 contract nurses were on their way to the Rogue Valley to help area hospitals, and a refrigerated truck was on the way to Josephine County to hold bodies, if needed.
Later that evening, protesters outside the hospital complained about a state vaccination mandate for health care workers, who must be vaccinated or have an exception by Oct. 18 or face termination. And the refrigerated truck was being set up at an undisclosed location, according to Mike Weber, the county’s public health director.
Lots of people are on edge. Lots of lives are on the line.
In the previous seven days, 28 people with COVID-19 died at the hospital, according to Howard, an average of one death every six hours.
“Absolutely heartbreaking,” he said.
The hospital’s 12-bed intensive care unit at noon was holding 18 COVID-19 patients, some of them in cramped, doubled-up rooms, according to Laura Magstadt, a registered nurse and the hospital’s vice president of nursing. Doubling up most of the rooms gives the unit 22 beds. At one point recently, 21 patients were housed there.
The youngest COVID-19 patient in the unit just then was 32, Magstadt said. The oldest was 78.
The youngest COVID-19 patient in the entire hospital was 27, while the oldest was 92.
“We have a number of people that are in their 30s and 40s,” she said.
Ventilators that help patients breathe were in short supply, because of heavy demand.
“We are not out of ventilators,” Magstadt said. “We have come close. We have not run out, but we have gotten close.”
As she spoke, a dozen patients were in the hospital’s emergency department awaiting a regular room upstairs. Others were awaiting discharge.
Patients were being kept in recovery areas instead of in regular rooms, with some on gurneys, curtains separating them. Others were in cardio and ultrasound areas.
“We are trying to find any space we can safely care for patients,” Magstadt said.
COVID-19 patients are kept separate from other patients.
Hospital spokeswoman Lauren Van Sickle said she wasn’t sure where the refrigerated trailer would be parked, but it won’t be at the hospital. As for the protest, she said it wasn’t aimed at Asante. She didn’t give a precise number of workers who had been vaccinated, but said it “increased from 64% over the past couple weeks.”
Magstadt was thankful for the soldiers, 32 of whom arrived Aug. 21, with up to 40 expected to stay through September. Most of them are from Southwest Oregon and have put aside their usual work to help.
“We are absolutely grateful,” Magstadt said. “They are doing many things, everything from washing dishes to cleaning rooms, answering phones, running supplies. It has been wonderful to have them. We greatly appreciate them.”
She also was thankful for the pending arrival of the contract nurses, who will help with critical care and medical-surgical care. They start arriving today, although it’s to be determined how many will be assigned to Three Rivers.
It was “the best news” Magstadt said. “It’s just a tremendous help.”
Hospital workers, she said, “have been working an unbelievable amount of shifts.”
Several other doctors spoke:
Surgeon Megan Frost expressed concern about the cancellation of urgent surgeries and procedures for people with cancer and at risk of stroke and heart attack.
“We don’t have the space or the staff,” she said.
It might be weeks or months before they can be cared for properly.
“I know you have cancer. We can’t take care of you right now,” she said. “That’s a weight on them that they have to live with.”
She said there have been angry conversations. Rationing care is a difficult decision.
“That doesn’t sit with us very well,” Frost said. “These are still people with life-threatening conditions that we are still having to delay their care.”
Hundreds of procedures have been delayed.
Surgeon Estin Yang said the recent spike in hospitalizations is predicted to peak early next week and possibly sooner, based on an Aug. 26 forecast from Oregon Health & Science University.
Early in the pandemic, Southwest Oregon was spared in large part, and there was a major spike last winter, but the current spike is the worst yet, Yang said. At last count, 51 local residents died in August from COVID-19 complications, compared with 20 in December and 20 in January.
“People are asking, ‘Why now? Why us?’” he said.
He pointed to earlier in the pandemic, when fewer people got infected, but fewer people then developed natural immunity from having the disease. He also pointed to the recent arrival of the more aggressive delta variant of the virus. And he said summertime means people are meeting in large groups and traveling.
Together, that’s “a very good recipe and environment” for the current surge, he said.
Dr. Steven Marshak, a pediatrician, said pediatric cases around the nation were rising, and rising in severity, and that children’s mental health was suffering from anxiety and depression.
“Most of this, I think, is lack of social networking, lack of school and activities,” he said, speaking about mental health issues. “Kids deserve to have in-person learning.”
But with a new school year beginning, Marshak predicted an increase in cases, quarantining and school shutdowns. He suggested that children 12 and older get vaccinated, and wear masks.
“I stress the pathway to overcome this is to protect your children,” he said. “Do what you can to protect each other.”
Dr. Justin Shelton of the Women’s Health Center of Southern Oregon said pregnant women with COVID-19 were much more likely to deliver early and need advanced care.
“There is a way to avoid these complications,” Shelton said, citing studies. “Vaccines are safe during pregnancy. You’re also protecting your baby.”
Surgeon Scott Nelson, who is past chief of staff at the hospital and current chairman of the Grants Pass School Board, was heartened by the teamwork he saw.
“It has also been a wonderful time to see people coming together, taking care of patients,” he said. “It’s been a really good thing to see our community and our staff pull together. What we have here is a dedicated team of professionals.”