State hospital shifts managers to nursing work to get through holiday weekend

The Oregon State Hospital on Friday, May 28, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A staffing crisis at the Oregon State Hospital means 24 managers will spend Memorial Day weekend covering the jobs of nurses who normally care for the 500 patients on the Salem campus.

Superintendent Dolly Matteucci said in an interview Friday with Salem Reporter that the staffing crisis facing the hospital means patients aren’t receiving optimal care as employees have been shuffled from their normal duties to fill in for absent nurses.

Driving the crisis is a high number of nursing staff out on Covid-related leave, mostly because they have had school or child care arrangements disrupted by the pandemic. As of last week, 33% of nursing staff were on Covid-related leave.

That’s forced the state’s primary psychiatric hospital to assign employees from other departments to provide nursing care and impose overtime shifts more frequently. The number of nurses resigning their state jobs in recent months has grown, with many citing burnout, Matteucci said.

“When the large team of talented staff that are normally here providing direct patient care and service … with the best knowledge of the patient as a human, as well as their treatment care plan, is not available, it is unfortunate,” she said. “That consistency is a key to everyone’s success.”

So far this month, 20 hospital employees have resigned, a number that doesn’t include retirements. In May 2020, just 12 resigned.

“The staff that are here are working tirelessly. They are doing their best to maintain that level of care and service,” Matteucci said.

Matteucci said she’s received no response yet from Gov.Kate Brown to a request sent Wednesday morning for 30 members of the National Guard to fill nursing shifts at the hospital. Hospital leaders requested registered nurses and licensed practical nurses to cover 10-hour shifts.

Activating the guard was the last step in a five-point crisis staffing plan hospital leaders created in November. Major Stephen Bomar, spokesman for the Oregon Military Department told Salem Reporter Friday that governor has to decide on activating military help. That’s typically done only when civilian resources are exhausted.

Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, referred questions to the Oregon Health Authority and Oregon Department of Emergency Management.

“State agencies are still working together to determine what Oregon National Guard personnel and resources would be needed and available to help in this situation. That process is ongoing,” Boyle said in an email.

Matteucci said she hasn’t spoken to Brown or her staff since making her request earlier this week.

“I don’t have a sense of what she is currently dealing with and responsible for,” Matteucci said. She said she hoped to have a response by the end of Memorial Day weekend, but said the governor’s office and military department haven’t given her a timeline of when – or if – to expect help.

“It is my assumption that they’re working and processing that,” she said.

Robb Cowie, spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority, said the agency is working with the military department to narrow the request and determine what resources are available. He said it’s not at the stage where the governor would act yet.

The Oregon Department of Emergency Management is looking at other civilian resources to help staff needed positions, spokeswoman Bobbi Doan said.

Doan said it’s the department’s job to make sure all civilian options are used before the guard is called out. That could include deploying nurses from other hospitals, seeking aid from other states or mandating state hospital employees return from leave.

Doan said on Friday afternoon she didn’t have a timeline on when the emergency management department would make recommendations to the Oregon Health Authority, the agency which oversees the hospital.

A request Tuesday to 5,000 state managers across all agencies that sought volunteers to staff the hospital has so far yielded just two takers.

Matteucci said staffing at the hospital was improved in late 2020, with more employees who had been on Covid-related leave returning. The number on leave began climbing again in February and resignations began to increase.

The staffing crisis developed as a greater number of employees were off work on Covid-related leave. Most are not sick. Instead, they’re using a state policy which allows employees to take time off if their child’s school or care arrangements change because of Covid.

Matteucci said the hospital is in the middle of hiring about 70 people. Those positions include a mix of permanent employees and temporary and contract workers. Some are almost ready to begin work, while others still have to complete training.

She said that hiring is intended to reduce the amount of overtime employees are being required to work.

This article was updated to include a comment from the Oregon Health Authority and Gov. Kate Brown’s office.

Related coverage: With thin staff and others working double shifts, state hospital calls for National Guard help

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

JUST THE FACTS, FOR SALEM – We report on your community with care and depth, fairness and accuracy. Get local news that matters to you. Subscribe to Salem Reporter starting at $5 a month. Click I want to subscribe!

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.