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Regional Interests

Oregon National Guard to deploy 30 volunteers to assist with state hospital’s ‘dire’ staffing

The Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon, is pictured in June 2019. This is one of the places that takes patients who qualify for involuntary civil commitment.
The Oregon State Hospital in Salem, Oregon, is pictured in June 2019. This is one of the places that takes patients who qualify for involuntary civil commitment.

Starting Monday, 30 members of the Oregon National Guard will report to the state’s psychiatric hospital in Salem to help alleviate a major staffing shortage brought on by COVID-19, according to state health officials. The hospital requested assistance from the Guard last week while also putting out an emergency plea to state employees to volunteer for shifts.

The staffing crisis has persisted on and off throughout the pandemic, accelerating dramatically since February. At times in May, 33% of the hospital’s nursing staff was out on pandemic related leave, because they’re ill, caring for sick loved ones, or have lost childcare, according to state health leaders.

Few details about the 30 Guard members being mobilized were available Thursday, including whether any have nursing, or other health care, experience.

Maj. Stephen Bomar with the Oregon Military Department told OPB those volunteering to mobilize for the state active duty are a combination of full-time airmen and citizen soldiers. The mobilization is set to run through July 31.

The Guard members will receive nine days of basic nursing onboarding and 40 hours of working with a staff member on a unit. Their training will also include how to de-escalate and respond to behavioral emergencies, the state hospital said in a release.

The Oregon State Hospital employs more than 1,800 people across two campuses, with more than 600 patients. The vast majority of those patients reside at the Salem campus. It works with some of the state’s most vulnerable psychiatric patients, many who are moving through the criminal justice system amid an exacerbated mental health crisis.

Disability advocates have questioned how state health leaders have managed the hospital, arguing it’s led to burnout for staff.

Currently, 77 people are waiting to be admitted to the hospital, many of those from local jails.

Last week, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen alerted state employees about the hospital’s staffing emergency.

“We need your help,” Allen wrote in an email. “OHA has exhausted all other staffing options for the hospital’s Salem Campus, and our circumstances are dire.”

So far, three state employees are receiving training or getting vetted for the emergency posting, a hospital spokeswoman confirmed.

For the last several months, some 300 Oregon National Guard members have assisted with the state’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout across the state. Now, those efforts are ramping down, Bomar said.

“Our patients deserve the best possible care, and with the National Guard’s help, we’re taking an important step in the right direction,” hospital Superintendent Dolly Matteucci said in a statement.

Matteucci told state lawmakers, on May 3, nearly 700 employees had taken some form of COVID-19 leave. From February to March, there was a 45% increase in direct-care staff taking leave.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting