The Morning Journal (Lorain, OH)

Oregon, once a virus success story, struggles with delta surge

- By Andrew Selsky and Sara Cline

SALEM, ORE. » Oregon was once the poster child for limiting the spread of the coronaviru­s, after its Democratic governor imposed some of the nation’s strictest safety measures, including mask mandates indoors and outdoors, limits on gatherings and restaurant closings.

But now the state is being hammered by the super-transmissi­ble delta variant, and hospitals are getting stretched to the breaking point. The vast majority of hospitaliz­ed COVID-19 patients are unvaccinat­ed.

The intensive care unit at Salem Hospital in Oregon’s capital city is completely full, with 19 of the 30 beds occupied last week by COVID-19 patients, the youngest only 20 years old. It’s the same at a hospital in Roseburg, a former timber town in western Oregon. A COVID-19 patient died in its emergency room last week while waiting for an ICU bed to open, an event that was deeply distressin­g to the medical staff.

“We need your help, grace and kindness,” the staff of CHI Health Medical Center said on Facebook. They are reeling “from the extraordin­ary onslaught of new cases and hospitaliz­ations.”

Oregon is among a handful of states, including Florida, Arkansas and Louisiana, that have more people hospitaliz­ed with COVID-19 than ever before.

“This is really a dire situation,” said Jeff Absalon, chief physician executive for St. Charles Health System in Bend. National Guard troops were deployed to the mountain town’s hospital last week to assist medical workers.

Some 1,500 guard troops have been dispatched to hospitals in the state by Gov. Kate Brown, who warned of the “seriousnes­s of this crisis for all Oregonians, especially those needing emergency and intensive care.”

Oregon keeps breaking records for the number of hospitaliz­ed COVID-19 patients, reaching 937 on Monday. That’s a 50% increase over last year’s record, when vaccines were not yet available. More than 90% of Oregon’s adult hospital and ICU beds are currently full.

Lisa, a nurse in Salem Hospital’s ICU, told a small group of visiting journalist­s Friday that she is both frustrated and sad to see a record number of COVID-19 patients, even though vaccines are widely available. She spoke on the condition that her last name not be used, because the pandemic and how to fight it have become highly politicize­d.

“We’ve been dealing with the second wave when we thought — I guess we hoped — it wouldn’t come. And it’s come. And it’s harder and worse, way worse, than before,” she said. Hours earlier, a COVID-19 patient died in the ICU.

As she spoke, a patient’s heart monitor beeped. A mechanical ventilator occasional­ly added a higher-pitched tone. Fifteen of the COVID-19 patients were on ventilator­s. The hospital’s wellness department, which normally recommends yoga and deep breathing for relaxation, set up a booth and filled it with dinner plates for a different kind of stress relief.

“We put on safety glasses,” Lisa said. “And we took plates and we shattered them. And I kept going back. I kept going back, and they told me I had enough turns.”

She said one advantage over last year’s surge is that she’s vaccinated, so she is not as scared of dying. Another improvemen­t is that there are plenty of masks, gowns and other personal protective equipment.

Other than the beeping monitors, the ICU was quiet. The COVID-19 patients are heavily sedated and behind closed doors. Outside their rooms stand poles draped with IV bags, the tubes running through a crack in the door so nurses can change the bags without exposing themselves to the virus.

Beds outside the unit can be upgraded to ICU-level care by adding monitors and lifesuppor­t machines, said Martin Johnson, the ICU medical director. A rapid-response team composed of an ICU nurse and an ICUlevel respirator­y therapist provide backup support, he said, stressing that the hospital can still take in patients.

After conferring on each patient’s medical status, ICU team members, who have spent a year and a half trying to keep COVID-19 patients alive, stand in a circle, sometimes holding hands, and try to come up with positive things to say.

“Sometimes it’s, ‘Their oxygen needs are less, or their fever is gone,’” Johnson said. “At other times, it’s ‘The patient opened his eyes and squeezed my hand.’”

When there is no improvemen­t, staff will express gratitude for each other or for the support of patients’ relatives.

Oregon’s early success against the virus may have helped fuel the delta variant’s toll on the state, because the aggressive measures to curb the first surge left many population pockets with no immunity. And though some 72% of adults statewide are at least partially vaccinated, that number drops to less than 50% in 10 of Oregon’s 36 counties.

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