With Covid cases again climbing, Salem Hospital over 100% capacity every day so far this year

A health care worker wheels out a gurney in the emergency room at Salem Hospital on Friday, Aug. 20, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

A “perfect storm” of post-holiday illness, discharge delays and a steady stream of Covid patients have kept Salem Hospital beyond full during the first week of the new year.

The hospital, the largest in the mid-valley region, is licensed for 494 patients, but has seen between 496 and 539 daily since Jan. 1.

Now, hospital officials say they again have to cancel some scheduled surgeries and plan for a worsening surge as the number of Covid patients has again started to rise.

“We haven’t had to do that in quite some time,” chief nursing officer Sarah Horn said of the surgery cancellations. “It’s really one of the only levers we have.”

She said the hospital postponed about 20 procedures scheduled for two days this week because of bed capacity.

(Graphic by Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

The hospital is the largest in Oregon’s region 2, which includes Marion, Polk, Yamhill, Linn, Benton and Lincoln counties.

Health officials have warned for weeks that Oregon will see a surge in Covid-related hospitalizations as the omicron variant sweeps through the state.

On Friday, Gov. Kate Brown announced she would again deploy the National Guard to Oregon hospitals to help deliver meals and take on other non-medical tasks. The Oregon Health Authority released a document outlining how hospitals should ration care if the surge overwhelms their ability to care for everyone.

Salem Health spokesman Michael Gay said the hospital doesn’t expect to need to ration care during this surge.

“We are carefully watching case projections, but we do not expect the need for crisis care guidelines. If an event ever required crisis care decisions, we would follow the guidance of Oregon Health Authority’s crisis care tool,” he said in an email. Those guidelines direct hospitals to make decisions based on which patients are most likely to survive their current hospitalization.

The variant generally causes milder illness than previous variants, but a large increase in cases will still increase the number of people needing hospital care. Salem Health leaders and state public health officials say getting vaccinated against Covid and getting a booster shot are the best way to prevent serious illness.

The latest projections from Oregon Health & Science University, released Thursday, say hospitalizations will peak during the last week of January, with about 1,650 Oregonians hospitalized with Covid. 

That’s nearly triple the 588 people currently hospitalized with Covid in Oregon. That number has increased from about 455 on Dec. 31.

Salem Hospital on Friday had 60 inpatients with Covid, up from 45 on Dec. 31.

Horn said Salem Health is forecasting the current wave to peak with about 100 Covid inpatients at the hospital – still below the Sept. 6 hospital record of 112 during the delta surge.

The hospital’s currently strained capacity is not only due to Covid, she said. Rather, it’s the mix of factors that have kept patient counts high all fall, many exacerbated by the new year.

Horn said delays discharging patients to skilled nursing facilities and long-term care remain a challenge. This week, she said 15 Salem-area facilities were not accepting patients, either due to staffing shortages or Covid outbreaks.

That’s left about 90 patients in the hospital who no longer need hospital-level care but don’t have anywhere else to go.

Dr. Jasmin Chaudhary, Salem Health’s medical director of infection prevention, said data out of the United Kingdom and South Africa is showing that omicron generally produces milder illness.

She said the number of Covid patients at Salem Hospital needing intensive care is lower than during previous surges.

“That’s very reassuring,” she said.

Chaudhary and Horn said encouraging booster vaccinations, both among their employees and in the community, remain key to blunting the impact of the current wave.

Horn said Salem Health is also training employees who work in outpatient settings like clinics so they can aid in hospital care if needed.

“We have an incredible team that is working incredibly hard,” Horn said. “They’re creative. They’re nimble, innovative. We’ve handled the huge surges very successfully in the past. So we’ll get through this for sure. But it’s drawing on our team. It’s been a long two years.”

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

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