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‘It’s a state of emergency.’ Jackson County requests help from state amid COVID surge

Asante Ashland Community Hospital
Erik Neumann
Asante Ashland Community Hospital

Jackson County has asked the state to help with a surge of coronavirus cases that’s overwhelming hospitals in Jackson and Josephine counties.

On behalf of the region and its local hospitals, the county requested the state provide 219 staff to help with hospital shortages, as well as a 300-bed field hospital where medical centers can divert patients that don’t need critical care.

The county also asked for help with discharging more than 60 patients to long-term care nursing facilities, regardless of whether those patients are elderly, because they need to be monitored by nurses but don’t need hospital-level care.

County Administrator Harvey Bragg says local hospital systems, including Asante and Providence, asked the county to submit this request because they’re struggling to keep up with an influx of patients. The region’s biggest hospital system, Asante, requested 185 additional staff. Providence requested 34. They’re also asking for equipment such as ventilators.

Asante recently announced that it can no longer perform non-urgent surgeries.

“If you’re not going to die within the next 24 hours, then your surgery is canceled,” Bragg says. “It’s a state of emergency.”

Lauren Van Sickle of Asante says the hospital system in July was treating less than a dozen coronavirus patients. This week it’s up to 130.

“That’s a drastic rise in the number of COVID-positive patients that we’ve seen in just the last 4-to-5 weeks,” Van Sickle says. “And right now we don’t see it slowing down.”

Bragg says it’s up to the state’s emergency department to decide whether it can provide any or all of the things the region has requested. If the state can’t fulfill the whole request, it’ll likely forward it to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Jackson County has topped the state’s daily coronavirus reports multiple times in recent weeks. Less than half of people in the county who are eligible for the coronavirus vaccine have been vaccinated.

Hospital officials say almost all of their new coronavirus patients didn’t get the vaccine.

“We’re asking the community to help by getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, and social distancing,” Van Sickle says. “And really being aware that this is a reality. It’s not a hoax. It’s not political. It’s a fact we’re dealing with and the impact it has on our community could be very, very severe.”

Southern Oregon has long suffered a shortage of nurses and hospital staff, even before the pandemic. Kevin Mealy with the Oregon Nurses Association says that has a lot to do with wages, working conditions, and housing prices.

“It’s really a distribution issue where we had enough nurses in total pre-pandemic, but they don’t always choose to work in certain geographic areas, including Southern Oregon,” Mealy says.

ONA has called on hospitals to provide better pay to attract more workers, but part of the issue also stems from a lack of affordable housing. Mealy says nurses have accepted then later declined jobs because they weren’t able to find a place to live. The Almeda Fire in 2020 — which destroyed 2,600 homes — exacerbated the region’s housing crisis.

On top of that, recurring wildfire smoke has made the region unappealing. It’s also challenged hospitals that once opted to set up outdoor awnings as waiting areas for patients possibly infected with the coronavirus. As air quality reaches unhealthy levels, outdoor waiting areas are no longer an option, especially for people suffering from a respiratory illness.

A culmination of these factors, plus more than a year of working nonstop through the pandemic, is pushing nurses out of the industry altogether.

“Nurses work 12-to-16-hour shifts,” Mealy says. “Some of them have been working for 14 days straight. They’re covering all the gaps that they can, but you can’t ask them to continue extending themselves forever.”

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

April Ehrlich began freelancing for Jefferson Public Radio in the fall of 2016, and then officially joined the team as its Morning Edition Host and a Jefferson Exchange producer in August 2017.