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Delta Virus Moving Through Southern Oregon ‘Like A Buzzsaw’

An ICU team at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center preparing to intubate a crashing COVID patient.
Michael Blumhardt/Asante with permission
An ICU team at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center preparing to intubate a crashing COVID patient.

Michael Blumhardt is the ICU medical director at Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford. He says all of Asante’s three hospital ICUs in Grants Pass, Medford and Ashland are 100% full of COVID patients.

“We’ve had two deaths today,” he says of the Medford campus. “So, it’s a very grim, difficult time.”

Unlike earlier COVID waves, Blumhardt says they’re seeing patients in their 20s, 30s, 40s and 50s. Many don’t have pre-existing medical conditions and are experiencing life-threatening illness, he says.

“We’re seeing clusters of families being admitted. We had a father and an adult daughter admitted to the intensive care unit and he passed away, right before I had to put the daughter on life support.”

Blumhardt says this wave of COVID is different.

“This is far more severe for this region than the prior COVID waves. The Delta virus is passing through the region like a buzzsaw.”

On the day I visit, Blumhardt shows off the Rogue Regional ICU via a Zoom teleconference. Inside, staff are dressed head to toe in personal protective equipment. One is Chelsea Orr, a registered nurse.

When I ask what she’s doing today, she answers bluntly.

“Just trying to keep people alive,” Orr says. “We’re taking care of a lot of ventilated patients here that are super sick. So, it’s a lot of really close monitoring.”

What feels different about this stage of the pandemic, versus normal times, she says, is the incredible loss of life.

“It’s been really hard,” she says. “We’re working harder than we’ve ever worked before and still losing.”

Justin McCoy is down the hallway waiting outside another patient isolation room.

“I’ve been an ICU nurse for ten years. I’ve never seen anything like this,” McCoy says. “It’s a really difficult situation we all find ourselves in. Delta can be very deadly. And it’s really terrible seeing these patients who can’t breathe. That is a very difficult thing to watch. It’s really terrifying for them and it’s really difficult for us to see day in and day out.”

Blumhardt says the vast majority of patients they’re seeing are unvaccinated.

“We admit nine unvaccinated to every one vaccinated individual,” he says. “So clearly the vaccine is protecting against hospital admission.”

COVID cases are rising around Oregon and the nation. But Jackson County has the largest number of unvaccinated people in the state. That’s translating to record numbers of infections. Within weeks, those individuals could wind up at an ICU, except that those facilities are already full.

Forecasting by Oregon Health and Science University suggests the state will be short 400-500 staffed hospital beds by Labor Day.

There are other consequences of the dramatic infection rate too. Blumhardt says Asante has had to decline around 200 patient transfers from smaller regional hospitals and scheduled surgeries have been postponed.

“The motor vehicle crashes, the brain bleeds, the cardiac arrests, the drug overdoses, these are still coming in and requiring admission and care. But because the ICU is so overwhelmed with COVID, these other issues that routinely get taken care of in the ICU are being pushed out to other areas of the hospital,” he says.

Dr. Courtney Wilson is an emergency physician at Asante. She says hospital staff are becoming worn out from the intense, non-stop care these patients require.

“I think people are frustrated, honestly. It feels discouraging that we have had a vaccine available for a really long time in this community and we have a really low vaccination rate here,” Wilson says.

In May, when many thought the pandemic was winding down, the Jackson County commissioners wrote a resolution calling for an end to state mandates and restrictions, and supporting limited emergency powers for Governor Brown.

Dave Dotterrer is one of those commissioners. He says, at the time, the county needed more local control, but given the chance, he’d vote differently today.

“Now you come to this position, you go ‘okay, now it’s time to reevaluate,’” Dotterrer says.

Governor Brown has deployed the National Guard to assist with pandemic response, Oregon’s Congressional delegation has requested medical support from FEMA and, recently, Providence and Asante hospitals have asked for a 300-bed field hospital from the state to house overflow patients in Southern Oregon.

Dr. Blumhardt says it’s going to take weeks, if not months, to take care of everyone who is currently in the local medical system. Meanwhile COVID infections are piling up.

“I don’t know how we’re going to get everybody taken care of,” he says. “That’s the bottom line. We’re all hands on deck at every level of the organization trying to figure out how to take care of as many people as possible.”

For now, he says, he and his staff are taking it a day at a time, taking care of their patients and then taking care of each other.

Copyright 2021 Jefferson Public Radio

Erik Neumann is a radio producer and writer. A native of the Pacific Northwest, his work has appeared on public radio stations and in magazines along the West Coast. He received his Bachelor's Degree in geography from the University of Washington and a Master's in Journalism from UC Berkeley. Besides working at KUER, he enjoys being outside in just about every way possible.