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Sky Lakes May Open ‘Field Hospital’ To Address Klamath County COVID-19 Surge

Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls
Holly Dillemuth
JPR News
Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls

Sky Lakes Medical Center in Klamath Falls is coming to grips with the same surge in serious COVID-19 infections that has been pushing other hospitals in the region to their limit.

Sky Lakes opened its second isolation unit for COVID-19 patients on Monday and, as of Tuesday morning, has 20 people hospitalized with the virus. There are only two beds available in its regular Intensive Care Unit for non-COVID-19 patients.

The medical center is also looking into erecting a temporary field hospital tent adjacent to the medical center to address its growing space issues.

“This would take some of the load from the Emergency Department, add capacity to help us care for people with less urgent medical needs, and help control the flow of patients requiring isolation,” said Ron Woita, vice president of Patient Care Services, in a news release.

Four patients admitted to Sky Lakes Medical Center with the COVID-19 Delta variant have died in the past week, with more deaths anticipated, according to Dr. Grant Niskanen, a physician and vice president of Medical Affairs at Sky Lakes Medical Center.

Niskanen told Jefferson Public Radio on Tuesday morning that the hospital has the capability to hold between 24 and 28 COVID-19 patients, between its two isolation units. Last week, at one point, there were only four COVID-19 patients at Sky Lakes. That number rose to 20 by Tuesday morning, doubling from Friday’s numbers, Niskanen said. That number is expected to increase to 30 patients by early September. That’s significantly higher than the 22 hospitalized during the winter months when the hospital’s COVID-19 hospitalizations peaked.

Niskanen said members of the Sky Lakes staff have also been getting sick with the virus. Last week, 11 nurses at the hospital were positive for COVID-19, with more cases springing up this week among respiratory therapists and lab workers.

“When staff are out, that makes it even more difficult,” he said. “It puts more strain on the remaining people.”

Niskanen said Tuesday that the medical center doesn’t yet need resources from the Oregon National Guard, but that could change overnight.

“Our seam’s about to burst, between our staff and our number of beds,” he said.

Niskanen confirmed that the Delta variant was first detected in Klamath County June 24 and believes that’s what is causing the rise in cases.

“The problem with Delta is it’s highly infectious compared to the other variants and the original COVID-19,” he said. “For every one person infected, they potentially can infect another eight people.”

Niskanen describes the COVID-19 variant as having a “proclivity” for attaching itself to lung cells and taking over, causing serious damage. He said he’s seeing patients in their 20s, 30s, and 40s being intubated, rather than the 75 and 80-year-olds who were typical during last winter’s COVID surge.

“They’re requiring a lot of care and it just puts a strain on everyone,” Niskanen said.

Sky Lakes CEO and President Paul Stewart said Sky Lakes is seeking temporary staffing to help meet increased needs.

“We may have more physical beds in the house, but we’ve had to divert so many of our resources to COVID-19 care that we don’t have the appropriate staff available for additional non-COVID-19 patients,” Stewart said in a news release.

“Our staff have been working hard to deal with everything this pandemic has handed us,” Stewart said. “They are doing a fantastic job but they are tired and stressed.”

Ron Woita said while many elective surgeries are being postponed due to lack of available bed space, “‘This is not a blanket order’ - there may be circumstances that require a procedure immediately - but we are considering each case carefully. If the number of COVID-19 patients continues to climb, we may need to reschedule all elective procedures.”

As the local medical system strains under the demands of the COVID surge, Klamath County Sheriff Chris Kaber released a letter to Gov. Kate Brown on Monday afternoon, urging her to reverse course on state mask and vaccination mandates, stating that the department would not enforce it, and encouraging residents to “peaceably” resist it.

Kaber’s letter echoes a letter from Klamath County School Board members and Klamath County Board of Commissioners asking for local control to be restored when making such decisions.

“...The Klamath County Sheriff’s Office will not be enforcing masking, social distancing, or mandates that come directly from the state without local representation in the decision-making process,” Kaber states in the letter.

Kaber said that individual counties must be allowed to make decisions based on each county’s particular health and safety concerns, and that imposing statewide requirements is “divisive and coercive.”

"I am convinced most Klamath County citizens are not willing to concede authority to your office and are in support of local control,” Kaber said. “I am currently working with parents who indicate they intend to resist state requirements. I do this in hopes of keeping the peace as school begins. This will undoubtedly include protesting your mandates.”

Grant Niskanen, while saying he wasn’t speaking in an official capacity representing Sky Lakes, believes Gov. Brown is right to impose the mask and vaccine mandates in Oregon at this time.

“It’s not that I’m against personal freedom or anything but we’re talking about lives here,” he said. “We have people dying from this … this is very serious and there will be people who continue to die from this until we really put these measures in place.”

The problem with COVID-19, Niskanen said, is it has become so political.

“So many people have taken stances about masks and vaccinations that it’s hard to be objective,” he said. “If we had no COVID in the area, I would not have a problem with it but we have a lot of COVID in the area and schools are definitely going to be affected.”

Klamath County Commissioner Donnie Boyd on Tuesday afternoon said he wasn’t aware of the current number of hospitalizations for COVID-19 but dismissed any correlation with asking for local control in regards to the state-implemented mandates.

“I don’t think a one-size fits all mandate is the right way to do this,” Boyd said.

Commissioners may discuss the topic at a Board of Commissioners meeting next week.

Stewart and Niskanen urged those who are unvaccinated in the community to get vaccinated.

“The best time to have been vaccinated was three or four months ago,” Stewart said. “The second-best time is now.”

Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday also announced a statewide mandate for masks in all outdoor places where social distancing cannot occur, regardless of vaccination status. The mandate goes into effect on Friday.

Booster shots are anticipated to be available in Klamath County on or around Sept. 20.

Holly Dillemuth was JPR's Klamath Basin regional correspondent. She was a staff reporter for the Herald and News in Klamath Falls for over 7 years covering a diverse range of topics, including city government, higher education and business.