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Despite Coronavirus Surge, Josephine County Leaders Won't Promote Masking, Vaccines

Laura Magstadt, Vice President of Nursing at Asante Three Rivers Medical Center, speaks to Josephine County Commissioners on Aug. 17.
Josephine County Aug. 17 Public Meeting Video
Laura Magstadt, Vice President of Nursing at Asante Three Rivers Medical Center, speaks to Josephine County Commissioners on Aug. 17.

Hospital workers in Grants Pass say their morgue is full as a result of a surge in coronavirus cases. Even so, county leaders remain reluctant to promote potentially life-saving health measures.

The Josephine County Board of Commissioners held a meeting Tuesday to speak with several health workers from the Asante Three Rivers Medical Center in Grants Pass.

“We are in a full-blown healthcare crisis in our community,” CEO Win Howard told commissioners. “I’ve never seen anything like this before.”

During the nearly three-hour public meeting, the commissioners repeatedly interrupted health experts to question the efficacy of the vaccines, suggest the surge was caused by Mexican immigrants, and promote medicines like hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID — even though there’s no scientific evidence showing that those medicines can successfully treat or prevent the coronavirus.

Surgeon Scott Nelson told commissioners the dire situation is impacting people across all demographics, and there’s at least one thing they could do as elected officials to curb it.

“I would ask that you speak in a unified voice,” Nelson said. “That we encourage our community, and our county, to wear a mask, to be socially distanced, and to talk to their provider — if that’s the most you’ll give us — on receiving the vaccine.”

So far, commissioners haven’t encouraged people to follow those health measures, instead opting to tell their constituents to talk to their doctors.

“I’m not going to hog-tie anybody and give them a vaccination, k?” Commissioner Herman Baertschiger Jr. told Nelson.

Baertschiger also spoke about the challenges the board faces when they receive angry emails from constituents.

“I think everybody in the medical [sic] that are here to testify don’t understand what happens to us,” Baertschiger said. “Let me give you a sample.”

Baertschiger read a piece of text aloud about Gov. Kate Brown “forcing face masks on citizens entering businesses,” although it wasn’t clear what he was reading. He also said he’s researched “very credible people” who have warned against getting the coronavirus vaccine.

“How does this board make a decision with all this information coming at us from everywhere?” Baertschiger said. “Alls I know is I got a bunch of sick people and I’m trying to figure out how to slow that down and stop it.”

Like Nelson, the medical workers who attended the meeting repeatedly told commissioners that they should urge their constituents to follow evidence-based health practices that can prevent the spread of the coronavirus, including wearing face masks, practicing social distancing, and getting the coronavirus vaccine.

Josephine County is among the lowest vaccinated counties in the state. A little over 51% of adults in the county are vaccinated, according to state data. In neighboring Jackson County, about 58% of adults are vaccinated. Jackson County needs to vaccinate more people than any other county in order to reach a 80% vaccination rate.

Despite the surge, Josephine County officials opted to hold the county fair over the weekend, which Baertschiger said brought 15,000 people to the fairgrounds.

Hospitals in both Josephine and Jackson counties say their ICU wards are full, as are their morgues. Hospital administrators say they’re considering ordering refrigeration trucks for the dead.

Laura Magstadt, Vice President of Nursing at Asante Three Rivers Medical Center, told commissioners that the hospital’s ICU ward is entirely filled with coronavirus patients. Her team had to create a secondary ICU for patients who don’t have the coronavirus, and that ward is full as well.

“There is an extremely high demand for critical care services, both COVID patients and non-COVID patients,” Magstadt said. “We are surging into as many spaces as we can find.”

Hospitals also don’t have enough staff to perform critical surgeries, including those related to heart disease and cancer.

“I spent all of last week and I’ll continue to do it this week and next week and the following weeks calling all of my patients that have cancer to tell them, ‘I’m sorry, we cannot do your cases right now,’'' surgeon Megan Frost told commissioners.

Frost said in the best case scenario, her patients might get their cancer surgeries in a couple of months. In the worst case, they’ll have to wait until next spring.

Pediatrician Steven Marshak told commissioners that his hospital is seeing an increase in children who have developed Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome following their coronavirus infections.

“These kids are sick,” Marshak said. “Really sick. Some of the sickest kids I’ve ever taken care of. They’re in multi-system organ failure. They’re in shock.”

Toward the end of the meeting, all three commissioners told the health workers that they didn’t think promoting the vaccine would convince people to get it.

April Ehrlich is JPR content partner at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Prior to joining OPB, she was a regional reporter at Jefferson Public Radio where she won a National Edward R. Murrow Award.