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Hospital Coronavirus Preparation Varies Ahead Of Possible Surge In Patients In S. Oregon, NorCal

Image of two people in plastic suits in parking area doing virus testing.
Lauren Van Sickle, Asante
Health care workers at Astante's drive-through COVID-19 testing location.

During a recent state coronavirus press conference, Dr. Renee Edwards from Oregon Health and Science University described an ominous number. It was the projected increase in COVID-19 cases around the state.

According to models, she said, the number of cases in Oregon are doubling every 6.2 days.

“This modeling does tell us that without a significant slowing of COVID-19, Oregon will not be able to serve the hospital needs of Oregonians without creating more hospital beds,” Edwards said.

As cases of coronavirus continue to spread in Oregon, concern is increasing about a spike in infected patients in the coming weeks that could overwhelm the health care system.

Public health officials expect they could need as many as 1,000 additional hospital beds plus 400 intensive care unit beds across Oregon by April 11.

A new analysis from the investigative news site ProPublica, using data from the Harvard Global Health Institute, showed the Medford area could be especially in need of intensive care unit beds. The analysis showed the state could need 9 times more ICU beds than are available.  

The most important preparation for hospitals before a potential spike in cases is making sure physicians and nurses remain healthy, says Dr. Chunhuei Chi, a professor and director of Oregon State University’s Center for Global Health.

“The general principle is how to protect the hospital,” Chi says. “Because, the worst possible thing to happen to any hospital is you have an in-hospital infection.”

If an infected patient unknowingly contaminates a hospital, Chi says, critical front line health care workers would need to be quarantined at home for two weeks.

To prevent that he recommends developing triage facilities outside of hospitals to diagnose who is sick and who isn’t. Chi also says hospitals need to be thinking about freeing up bed space before a possible case increase by postponing scheduled surgeries that can wait.

“Any non-urgent procedure, I recommend postponing during this period of time,” he says.

Oregon hospital association data shows that in 2018 Providence Medford Medical Center operated at about 54% occupancy. Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center’s occupancy rate was 75%.

Asante recently set up a drive-through coronavirus testing site in Medford near their hospital where they’re triaging patients who need to be tested for COVID-19. But amidst a nationwide shortage of coronavirus testing supplies, Asante is focusing their services on patients most at-risk for COVID-19.

“You cannot just show up and get tested,” says Lauren Van Sickle, a spokesperson for Asante. “You must have a doctor’s order in order to have the specimen collected.”

Asante has not started reducing the number of patients at their hospitals or cancelling upcoming elective surgeries to create extra space for a potential COVID-19 increase, Van Sickle says.

“Most of the time our hospitals are busy on a regular basis, and also during flu season which is right now. But we have not had a problem as far as treating the patients that arrive, so it has not been an issue,” she says.

Representatives from Dignity Health, the operator of Mercy Medical Center in Redding say their facility has rooms where COVID-19 patients will be isolated from the general patient population. They also plan to transfer additional patients to their partner medical facilities in Redding. 

In the meantime, health officials are continuing to ask residents to stay inside and practice social distancing to help lessen a spike in coronavirus patients.

Dr. Chi at Oregon State University says the fatality rate for this disease is low. He says the vast majority of patients who are infected with COVID-19 will recover. Some people, he says, won’t even have symptoms. 

“We need to be vigilant about containing it and about individuals practice of safety hygiene,” Chi says. “At the same time, there’s no need to panic.”

Erik Neumann is JPR's news director. He earned a master's degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and joined JPR as a reporter in 2019 after working at NPR member station KUER in Salt Lake City.