Cheryl Nester Wolfe, CEO of Salem Health, addresses a COVID-19 incident command meeting on March 19, 2020 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

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Cheryl Wolfe didn't pull any punches when addressing a gathering of Salem business leaders Thursday morning.

"We’ve never seen anything like this," the Salem Health CEO told a public policy meeting of the Salem Chamber of Commerce as the region's largest hospital battles a beyond-full intensive care unit occupied largely with Covid patients. 

“This is an ugly disease, and the reality is that we’re losing this battle,” Wolfe said.

Wolfe said the hospital has signed a contract for a refrigerated truck to store bodies because of the number of people now dying of Covid inside the hospital’s walls.

Sarah Horn, the hospital’s chief nursing officer, called that action “a milestone that neither we, nor our communities, should be proud of.”

“On Monday, we secured a 26-foot refrigerated truck in the event our Covid numbers continue to climb and patient deaths increase as a result. As the hospital with the highest number of COVID cases in the state, this is part of our preparedness. The refrigerated truck is being held at the location of the company we have rented from, as we are doing everything in our power to not have the need to deliver the truck to our campus,” Horn said in an email.

Wolfe said the toll of both seriously ill Covid patients and patients with other illnesses who delayed needed care during the pandemic has pushed the hospital to take drastic steps to keep beds available for those who need them most.

“We are completely full. We’re cancelling surgeries, and we’re not cancelling surgeries that aren’t necessary. We’re cancelling surgeries because we can’t accommodate an ICU bed for the patient,” she said.

The hospital had 93 Covid-positive patients Thursday morning, 21 of them in the ICU and 16 on ventilators, Wolfe said. The hospital’s ICU has 30 beds.

Seventy-nine of those patients are not vaccinated against Covid, according to a daily update the hospital publishes.

Wolfe spoke to urge local businesses to encourage or mandate vaccination against Covid for their employees - something Salem Health is also doing under orders from Gov. Kate Brown.

Wolfe said while people who are fully vaccinated do sometimes get Covid, it’s rare for them to require hospitalization. The few vaccinated people who end up hospitalized with Covid typically have other serious health problems, she said.

And while most deaths remain among older people, the average age of patients hospitalized with Covid has fallen from earlier stages in the pandemic, Wolfe said. 

Marion County recently recorded one of its youngest Covid deaths to date.

“We lost a 35 year old this week. Guys, this is not a joke. The thing doesn't care how old you are. It cares how your body reacts to it, and how your lungs shut down,” Wolfe said.

She described a recent incident where medical workers performed a C-section on a woman hospitalized with Covid who was pregnant.

“We know the mother’s not going to make it. That’s the reality,” she said.

Wolfe said the number of deaths and sick patients are continuing to take a toll on the staff who care for them and often must tell relatives that there’s little or nothing they can do.

“We didn't sign up for a pandemic, and we didn't sign up to every single day, lose people, and not be able to save people” Wolfe said. “We save people. We lose some. We’re losing a lot, and we’re losing people that primarily are unvaccinated.”

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

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