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Health and Medicine

With many unvaccinated, Jackson County health care workers brace for omicron

"I'm so thankful," says Alice Maurer, 79, after she receives a COVID-19 vaccination from McMinnville paramedic Elle Miller, earlier this month. Maurer lives in an apartment for independent residents on the 5th floor at Friendsview, while her husband Nick lives in hospice care on a closed memory care unit in the same building.
OPB
Amity volunteer firefighter and EMT Nic Sherman gives Friendsview Retirement Community resident Sam Farmer a COVID-19 vaccination, as Dorothy Farmer looks on, in Newberg, Ore., Feb. 5, 2021.

Health officials in Southern Oregon are bracing for a surge in COVID-19 cases in a region that tops the list for the number of people who are unvaccinated.

At nearly 23,000, Jackson County has the largest number of individuals in the state who need to receive shots in order to reach the state’s goal of 80% vaccination. Other counties with the most people still needing shots to reach that goal include Douglas, Josephine and Klamath Counties.

“With that many people unprotected, our hospitals in Region 5 could be hit even harder than everybody else’s,” says Jackson County Medical Director Jim Shames, referring to Jackson and Josephine counties.

Last summer COVID-19 cases overwhelmed hospitals in Southern Oregon. Now, Shames is worried the same thing will happen again with the significantly more contagious omicron variant of the virus.

“I think with such a large, unvaccinated patient population, we are really worried what this will look like, knowing how affected we were by the delta surge,” says Amanda Kotler, the vice president of nursing at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford. “Even a fraction of those patients coming in will further strain already strained resources,”

Right now, the Asante system has limited space because of the many procedures patients put off over the past year, Kotler says, which they’re now trying to make up for.

“I think a really important point is just considering the collateral damage that we’re still working through from the initial surge,” she says. “What does that look like with another surge layered on top of that?”

With this new variant, Kotler is making surge planning contingency plans like using open, field-hospital-style wards and converting units that are designed for maternal health or outpatient wound care to house COVID-19 patients.

The omicron variant can spread far more easily than the original coronavirus from early 2020, Shames says, and we need to adapt our precautions.

“We’ve got to up our game in terms of protecting ourselves,” he says.