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Health and Medicine

Gov. Brown Pleads With Oregonians To Stay Home As COVID-19 Strains Hospital Capacity

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks to reporters in her ceremonial office at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.
Bradley W. Parks
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown speaks to reporters in her ceremonial office at the Capitol in Salem, Ore., Monday, Jan. 14, 2019.

Gov. Kate Brown says it's critical that Oregon hospitals gear up for a new surge of patients. Hospitals say they're answering the call.

With the fastest-growing number of COVID-19 cases on the West Coast, Oregon hospitals are preparing to deal with a surge in patients.

“When people become ill, we need to assure that there are enough hospital beds, PPE, and staff to prepare,” Brown said Tuesday at a media briefing. “This is very serious. Oregon is headed on the wrong road.”

When the first coronavirus case hit Oregon, hospitals started clearing out their intensive care unit beds and bracing for the kind of surge that was overwhelming hospitals from China to New York to Italy. Hospitals there and elsewhere were overflowing and doctors were making life-or-death decisions about how to best prioritize care.

That early surge never materialized in Oregon. COVID-19-related hospitalizations peaked at just over 300 patients, at which point cases were already declining as social-distancing measures slowed the spread of the virus.

But as of Monday, there were 318 patients hospitalized with COVID-19, part of a pattern in which the number of new cases reported daily continues to climb.

“The trend is clear and very concerning,” said Dana Hargunani, the chief medical officer for the Oregon Health Authority.

While a case surge could be worse this time around, the state has had more time to prepare. Oregon’s warehouse is stocked with PPE — personal protective equipment: over 10 million surgical masks, nearly 4 million gowns and N95-masks and over 7 million gloves. New shipments of PPE are coming in every day: 5 million gloves arrived over the weekend.

And hospitals have had time to prepare, too. They’ve set up surge tents and additional beds in anticipation of a patient influx.

“We now have multiple plans and systems in place,” Hargunani said. “We’re better prepared than we were in February.”

Oregon Health & Science University’s triage center has been in use several times throughout the pandemic, mainly to help facilitate physical distancing when the emergency department overflows. It’s not currently in use, says OHSU spokesperson Erik Robinson, but it’s ready.

The state also organized hospitals into different regional groups to help share resources throughout different hospital networks. Each region has an appointed regional resource hospital.

“While we have plans in place to share beds and ventilators if necessary, that needs to be a last resort,” Brown said. “Lives are at stake.”

OHSU chief medical officer Renee Edwards said that some of those plans have been put into motion.

“Last week in response to a record-breaking number of COVID-19 cases and a large increase in the number of critically ill patients requiring the highest level of nursing care, we had to crack open those plans and in some hospitals implement them in one or more of our intensive care units for the first time," Edwards said.

”We are at a crossroads," she said. The new cases found over the last week will lead to new hospitalizations in a few weeks. “It’s already baked in.”

Brown reminded Oregonians that the only way to avoid a hospital surge is for everyone to continue to practice social distancing, and try to limit gatherings to within their households, even if they aren’t in a county with a mandatory “pause” in response to rising cases.

This story will be updated.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting