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National Guard Arrives In Southern Oregon To Help Hospitals

 Oregon National Guard soldiers in camouflage gear, boots, and face masks sit in chairs in an auditorium.
April Ehrlich | JPR News
Oregon National Guard soldiers with the 1-186 Infantry Battalion receive an orientation at the Medford Armory Aug. 20 before providing their support to local hospitals.

About 150 National Guard soldiers arrived in Medford Friday morning to help local hospitals that are overwhelmed with coronavirus patients.

The soldiers will provide support tasks, such as cleaning and traffic control, to Asante and Providence hospitals in Medford, Ashland, and Grants Pass. They’re among several teams that were also deployed to Roseburg and Bend.

Asante administrator Holly Nickerson opened the orientation with an emotional speech about how badly their help is needed.

“We’ve come to the place as an organization where we’re no longer going to be able to withhold our mission and vision to the organization, our mission and vision to the community, without support with you guys,” Nickerson said. “And I hope that resonates with you. I hope you know we wouldn't call you in unless we truly needed you.”

Nickerson said Asante’s hospital system is experiencing a severe staff shortage amid a major surge in coronavirus patients who need critical care. Asante has 700 open positions, so it’s missing 12 percent of its staff.

Asante has had to double up patients in ICU rooms, and cancelled over 400 important surgeries.

“We have a gentlement who’s staying in a hotel who’s had his open heart surgery canceled four times,” Nickerson said. “Can you imagine needing open heart surgery and thinking every day when you wake up you're going to get that surgery you need and have it canceled?”

Nickerson said the Asante Three Rivers Medical Center in Grants Pass has a 9-bed critical care unit that’s filled with 17 critical care patients, with two patients sharing rooms. There are also patients being treated in hallways.

Most of the coronavirus patients receiving critical care in Jackson and Josephine counties never got the coronavirus vaccine. Health workers are pleading with people to wear face masks, practice social distancing and get the coronavirus vaccine.

The National Guard soldiers are part of 1-186 Infantry Battalion based in Ashland and Medford, so many of them live in the region. They’re all trained for combat.

“Most of my career has been spent more focused on the federal business with Iraq and Afghanistan,” Battalion X-O Rob Ranit said at the orientation. “This is kind of new to me. This is kind of an interesting role. Never thought I’d be doing it.”

National Guard soldiers are often deployed to major disasters such as wildfires. In February, soldiers from this battalion were deployed to the Expo Center in Medford where they helped health workers vaccinate people.

Asante and Providence made the initial request for staffing help through Jackson County, which sent the request to the Oregon Office of Emergency Management (OEM). The county also requested a 300-bed field hospital and additional medical staff.

OEM sent a request for medical staff to other states, but a spokesman with the agency says officials “have low confidence other states will have resources available as other similar state requests have gone unfulfilled.”

April Ehrlich is an editor and reporter at Oregon Public Broadcasting. Previously, she was a news host and reporter at Jefferson Public Radio.