On the day 150 Oregon National Guard members arrived in town, St. Charles Bend was caring for the highest number of COVID-19 patients since the start of the pandemic.
Assigned to Central Oregon, the guard members are here to relieve overtaxed medical professionals who have been plagued by surging cases and not enough workers.
They will help with logistics, stocking supplies, screening patients and visitors, preparing food and assisting patients in roles that do not require a medical license, according to St. Charles Health System.
“Eighteen months into the pandemic, our front-line workers that have been caring for patients every day are exhausted,” said Dr. Jeff Absalon, St. Charles Health System chief physician executive. “They’re burned out. We’re in a pandemic that many of us regard as largely preventable, and yet, here we are with the largest number of hospitalizations that we’ve ever seen.”
On Thursday the hospital had 62 patients with COVID-19 — the most patients since the start of the pandemic. The patients with COVID-19 accounted for 30% of the acute care beds, Absalon said.
The atmosphere Thursday at the National Guard armory building off Simpson Avenue in Bend felt like a job fair as each guard member received an assignment.
Shannon Binder, a 33-year-old combat medic specialist for the National Guard, was eager to get her assignment.
Like many guard members, Binder traveled from hours away, leaving behind a job and a family. Binder is a single mother of three children from Condon, a small town in Gilliam County about 130 miles northeast of Bend.
Binder, who works in waste management and as a volunteer emergency medical technician, said her mother was watching her children and her employers understood her responsibility to the National Guard.
“The fact that we are able to do this and put our lives on hold to come help others is why we do what we do,” Binder said.
Lt. Col Brian Dukes, who is helping oversee the operation for the National Guard, said the members will be trained on the job at the hospital. Although members such as Binder are trained as medics, none will provide medical assistance, Dukes said.
“We will not be doing any form of treatment or clinical roles,” Dukes said. “We are strictly in a support role.”
As the region’s hospital that serves eight counties — the largest area in the state — the help will be vital, Absalon said.
“What we’re going through right now is unimaginable,” Absalon said during Gov. Kate Brown’s media briefing Thursday morning. “We are seeing an incredible surge of patients in our communities as well as patients that are requiring hospitalization. We’re overwhelmed. This is really a dire situation.”
The intensive care unit has 30 beds in Bend. Because the hospital is at, or over capacity, nearly 3,000 surgeries have been canceled or postponed since April, he said.
“These are not cosmetic surgeries,” Absalon said. “These are very necessary, critical surgeries. These are patients that have cancer, heart disease, neurological disease.
“Simply put, we’re rationing care.”
The rise in cases has started to impact some city infrastructure projects in Bend. Whole contractor crews have been affected by COVID-19, said City Manager Eric King, which has resulted in unanticipated delays.
The Ninth Street and Newport Avenue roundabout opening has been delayed, and is now expected to be complete in mid-September, according to a tweet from the city of Bend. Construction of the new roundabout at Columbia Street and Simpson Avenue, which was scheduled to be complete this month, has also been affected, though a new construction timeline has yet to be announced.
The National Guard deployment Thursday was part of a 1,500-member deployment to support front-line hospital workers across the state, said Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen during the governor’s media briefing.
Over the next four days, a team of 27 paramedics from the Federal Emergency Management Agency also will be sent to emergency departments at six Oregon hospitals, including six to St. Charles Bend and Redmond, Allen said.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has become a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Allen said.