Oregon Joins Florida, Arkansas as States With Record Number of Hospitalized COVID Patients

Oregon, once a model for limiting the spread of COVID-19, is now among a group of state seeing record-breaking numbers of hospitalizations as the highly transmissible Delta variant erases the state's progress.

Oregon now joins Florida, Arkansas and Louisiana in having more people hospitalized with COVID than ever since the pandemic began

At Salem Hospital in Oregon's capital, the intensive care unit is at capacity, with COVID patients in 19 of 30 available beds last week. The youngest patient was only 20 years old.

Over at a hospital in Roseburg, one of western Oregon's former timber towns, a COVID patient died in the emergency room last week waiting for an ICU bed to become available.

"We need your help, grace and kindness," the staff of CHI Health Medical Center said on Facebook, adding that they are reeling "from the extraordinary onslaught of new cases and hospitalizations."

Oregon ICU
In Oregon, the hospitalization rate of unvaccinated COVID-19 is breaking records and squeezing hospital capacity, with several having no room for more patients. Above, two visitors peer into the room of a COVID-19 patient in the intensive care unit at Salem Hospital in Salem, Oregon, on August 20. Andrew Selsky/AP Photo

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

"This is really a dire situation," said Jeff Absalon, chief physician executive for St. Charles Health System in Bend, Oregon. 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 around the state by Governor Kate Brown, who warned of the "seriousness of this crisis for all Oregonians, especially those needing emergency and intensive care."

On Friday, only 39 adult ICU beds were available statewide. More than 90 percent of Oregon's adult hospital and ICU beds are 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. She spoke on the condition that her last name not be used, because the pandemic—and how to fight it—has 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, recently 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 life-support machines, said Martin Johnson, the ICU medical director. A rapid-response team composed of an ICU nurse and an ICU-level 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 instead 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 percent of adults statewide are at least partially vaccinated, that number drops to less than 50 percent in 10 of Oregon's 36 counties.

Oregon's low immunity level, considering previous infection rates and the number of unvaccinated people, creates a high risk for new infections, said Renee Edwards, chief medical officer at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland.

Compounding the problem: Oregon has, along with Washington state, the lowest per-capita supply of hospital beds in the nation. The two states each have only 1.7 beds per 1,000 residents, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit focusing on national health issues. South Dakota ranks first, with 4.8 beds per 1,000.

It will be a race against time to see if Oregon's health care system can withstand the current surge before it eases off. Oregon Health & Science University predicts the peak will be September 7.