Could Oregon health care leaders unite under ‘coronavirus czar?’

Former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons).

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Does Oregon need a coronavirus czar?

Some think so. Health care leaders in Oregon are pushing for the creation of a unified command to manage scarce hospital beds as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads and worsens.

The problem: Under a worst-case scenario, Oregon is expecting 75,000 or more coronavirus patients to need hospitalization by mid-May. But the state has about 6,600 beds — the nation’s lowest per-capita rate.

Some experts say the expected onslaught of patients will start to emerge in the next week or two. And unprecedented measures will be needed to house, manage and segregate patients, while securing needed supplies such as masks, gowns and other medical equipment.

Former Gov. John Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor, on Sunday wrote on his blog that the state needs an emergency response team led by a single leader empowered to respond to the situation.

“Every day that goes by without an aggressive, coordinated emergency response plan undermines the likelihood that we will be able to successfully respond and manage the potential of a dramatic increase in hospital admissions,” he wrote.

He’s not alone. Inspired by modeling of what the pandemic will look like in Oregon, multiple hospital systems already are working to create an unprecedented joint command center to manage the situation, according to informed sources who spoke on condition of anonymity. The ideal outcome would be managing hospitals spread out around the region as if part of one system.

Kitzhaber said the effort would “require a high degree of collaboration and coordination among all hospitals in Oregon.”

So far, the systems involved in the preliminary discussions include Kaiser Permanente, Legacy Health, Oregon Health & Science University and Providence Health. But other systems could join.

They have involved the Oregon Health Authority and the Tri-County Health Officer, Jennifer Vines, in their discussion.

Kitzhaber said part of the effort should involve identifying hospitals that could quickly be made ready for COVID-19 patients. He suggests a 104-bed Peace Health facility in Eugene, as well as 215-bed Tuality Hospital.

He said the effort also must look at facilities that would take longer to start up, such as the unopened Wapato Jail facility in Multnomah County.

Some health care officials say a key focus of the response should be medical equipment to combat already existing shortages.

Wrote Kitzhaber, “Oregonians need to feel certain that the state’s health care system is prepared to deal with the medical consequences of those who become infected — and especially of those who require hospitalization.”