UMATILLA COUNTY — If there’s been a bright spot for Umatilla County during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been its ability to keep the number of patients in hospital beds low.
With hospitalizations for COVID-19 rapidly growing across the state, that trend may be tested in the coming weeks.
Both of Umatilla County’s hospitals — St. Anthony Hospital in Pendleton and Good Shepherd Medical Center in Hermiston — avoided making Oregon Health Authority’s list of hospitals with 10 COVID-19 patients or more in its most recent report, but both have 1-9 patients who have been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Emily Smith, St. Anthony’s marketing director, wrote in an email that the hospital’s 30 beds were not yet at capacity, but the facility had seen 4-7 COVID-19 inpatients per day since Nov. 15.
Messages seeking comment from Good Shepherd President Brian Sims and Communications Director Caitlin Cozad were unreturned as of press time.
Hospitals across Oregon have been stretched thin by the recent surge in coronavirus cases. Since Oct. 21, the number of Oregonians hospitalized with COVID-19 has increased from 121 to 521, according to an Oregonian/OregonLive database tracking public health data throughout the pandemic.
In the past local hospitals have relied on transferring some COVID-19 patients to hospitals in Portland, Tri-Cities and Walla Walla, Washington, for better or more specific treatment. But should those hospitals become full with their own patients, Smith said St. Anthony is prepared to expand its transfer radius to 300 miles.
Should St. Anthony encounter patient capacity issues of its own, Smith said the hospital would suspend elective surgeries to open more beds. Some hospitals in Oregon are already doing this as cases rise.
The specter of a strained hospital system is also catching the attention of top officials throughout the county.
Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara said hospitals are utilizing more beds than previously, but they still have room to take on more patients.
But the surge of new COVID-19 cases statewide and in the Portland metro area could still be felt locally, Fiumara said.
Portland hospitals have access to specialists and equipment that local hospitals don’t, which could affect how local patients are treated for the virus. Dr. James Heilman, an associate professor of emergency medicine at the OHSU School of Medicine, said the hospital will often help COVID-19 patients from rural counties who are pregnant or suffering from a stroke.
Heilman added that several backup mechanisms — like transferring a patient to another hospital or facility — would have to fail before they would stop accepting rural transfer patients.
His biggest concerns, however, is that patients with other ailments unrelated to COVID-19 will not be transferred because the ward will be filled with COVID-19 patients. This is especially problematic as flu season begins, which will typically fill up hospitals and force them to refer patients elsewhere in non-pandemic years.
Data provided by Oregon Health & Science University shows the hospital has accepted 69 total transfer patients from Good Shepherd, St. Anthony, Grande Ronde and Saint Alphonsus hospitals since May.
Fiumara said the increase in hospitalized patients could also be due to the type of people who have been contracting it lately.
“We had cases jump in July, but we really didn’t fill the hospitals,” he said. “I think the main reason for that is that a lot of cases were in the 20s and 30s. And we do know with the virus that the older you are the more at-risk you are. Those in the 20s and 30s are at a low risk of complications and have a low risk of needing to be hospitalized.”
Umatilla County saw a rise in cases following Halloween, and in a Nov. 24 newsletter, Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock worried that a Thanksgiving day spike could affect older residents.
“(Our) numbers are too high and two days from now we are going to experience Thanksgiving and despite the warnings, we will likely see yet another spike coming down the road,” he wrote. “Our concern here is that the Halloween parties largely included a younger crowd although they shared the virus with their families. Thanksgiving is likely to include a much older population as active participants and therefore would include many more people with preexisting conditions and age working against them.”
At a press conference convened by Gov. Kate Brown on Nov. 25, Dr. David Zonies, the medical director for the intensive care units at OHSU, compared working with COVID-19 patients in the intensive care unit at OHSU to working on the front lines of a war in Afghanistan, where he served years ago.
Zonies pleaded with Oregonians to take the virus seriously, adding that he still encountered critically ill patients who believed the virus was made-up or overblown.
He said Portland hospitals weren’t turning away rural patients, but it was a concern.
“At this point we have the ability to care for everyone who needs our help, and as Gov. Brown previously mentioned, the staffing issue is a very real one,” he said, referring to the toll the virus has taken on frontline health care workers, some of whom are leaving due to the stress and anxiety brought on by the pandemic. “So we are currently not in a position where we would be turning away care for patients who need higher levels of care specifically in hospitals in the metropolitan area that have more specialty services (and) more ICUs that can be staffed. But it is a concern that we’re all working through right now.”
Patrick Allen, the director of the Oregon Health Authority, said everyone in the state needed to work together to ensure there is enough hospital capacity to go around.
“The fact that your local hospital may not seem to be full doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t somebody in your hospital that might need to be transferred to Portland or Boise or Tri-Cities for a more advanced level of care,” he said. “What needs to be is all Oregonians need to do their part to keep people out of the hospital.”