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Oregon hospitals ask for help from the state

Salem Health hospital
Kristyna Wentz-Graff

Most hospitals in Oregon are currently at over 90% capacity, despite the fact that COVID-19 hospitalizations are nowhere near their highest peaks.

Last month Salem hospital was so full it had to turn ambulances away from the emergency room for a few hours, the first time that’s happened since 2008.

Emergency transport vehicles stack up outside the emergency department, waiting for patients to be admitted at Salem Health in Salem, Oregon, Jan. 27, 2022. The department has 53 patient rooms but has made space for 100 by adding hallbeds to handle the influx of people seeking treatment.

One explanation is the number of people who delayed care during the pandemic, and are now facing serious health issues.

“We’re seeing sicker and sicker patients that are staying longer in the hospital than what they did pre pandemic,” says Cheryl Wolfe, the CEO of Salem Health Hospitals and Clinics.

Another major issue is staffing, both at hospitals and at other facilities patients might be sent to.

“We have patients in our hospital that we have to keep because we have no skilled bed or adult foster bed that we can send them to,” says Wolfe. “They’re not well enough to go home. They have to go someplace. So we end up holding those [patients]. Pre-pandemic, it was about 30 patients a day that we were holding, and now we’re holding 90.”

Becky Hultberg, the CEO of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, says in some ways we’re only now seeing the effects of the pandemic on our healthcare systems.

“If you think about COVID-19 as an earthquake,” says Hultberg, “what we’re experiencing now are the aftershocks. And the aftershocks at times can be as destabilizing as the initial event.”

Among other things, the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems is asking the state to fund temporary staffing for hospitals and for long-term skilled nursing facilities. In addition, the association would like to see the legislature make it easier for out-of-state workers to practice in Oregon.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting