U.S. Army National Guard Spc. Thomas Watson puts together a patient meal at Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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For Spc. Ethan Gratias, community service missions are the best part of serving in the U.S. Army National Guard.

So, the Grants Pass soldier was happy when he got orders at the end of August sending him to Salem Hospital to help care for patients amid a surge in Covid patients that’s overflowed the ICU and at times left people needing intensive care waiting in the emergency room for beds to open up.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” Gratias said of the mission. “I like the opportunity to work on something that seems like an urgent need.”

Gratias is among 67 National Guard soldiers deployed to Salem Hospital who began work this week. About 100 airmen will join them starting Saturday.

While the soldiers and airmen aren’t licensed medical professionals, their presence is helping the hospital cope with the strains of an overflowing facility.

Salem Hospital typically has about 400 patients in its 494 licensed beds, but has recorded upwards of 450 people hospitalized daily for most of the past month. On Thursday, the hospital census was 504 patients, exceeding its licensed capacity - something temporarily allowed under federal emergency declarations related to the pandemic.

"Throughout this surge we have prioritized flexibility, creating new spaces for patients beyond traditional care areas and utilizing double occupancy rooms. We continue to make room for all patients who need care, but today’s numbers underscore the seriousness of the current surge and how it is temporarily changing the way care is delivered in Oregon," Salem Health spokeswoman Lisa Wood said in the hospital's daily capacity update.

With so many patients in rooms, that means health care workers help with cleaning or other non-clinical jobs because every department in the hospital is stretched thin.

“We’ve got nurses cleaning rooms between patients,” said Josh Franke, Salem Health’s chief project officer, who’s coordinating the guard deployment on the hospital side. Guard soldiers and airmen are taking on tasks like meal delivery, assisting nurses, transporting patients, restocking rooms and running check-in stations.

Covid patients have accounted for much of the surge. The hospital on Thursday had 111 patients with Covid in beds, more than any other hospital in Oregon. That includes 23 Covid patients in the normally 30-bed intensive care unit, which has added beds in other wings of the hospital to accommodate the number of seriously ill Covid patients.

Also contributing to the bed shortage are people with chronic health problems who delayed needed medical care during the pandemic and are now sicker, as well as challenges discharging patients to skilled nursing facilities because those facilities are understaffed and don’t have beds available, hospital leaders have said.

U.S. Army National Guard Spc. Joel Carlson, right, and Salem Hospital employee Hailey Brice work in patient transportation and intake for the emergency room at Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Gratias was assigned to the hospital’s emergency room Wednesday, where he helped a triage nurse assess patients by taking their vitals.

He said he had some familiarity with the process thanks to his civilian job as a pool manager and lifeguard at the Grants Pass YMCA, but learned the hospital machines on the job. His duties also included stocking rooms in the emergency department as patients came and went.

His sister recently began work as a nurse, and he said the combination of her work and being inside the hospital have underscored the challenges health care workers face. He said he wished people would stop seeing the pandemic and measures like vaccination as political.

“I know not everyone approved of the vaccine, but I just wish they could separate their political views from the risks of Covid,” he said.

U.S. Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Sean Neiger, left, and Capt. James Mooney consult in the lobby at Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Sept. 8, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

It’s an assignment different from typical National Guard deployments, said Capt. James Mooney, the officer in charge of the Salem Hospital mission. His company has been assigned to assist with wildfires and on riot control in the past year, but previously only guard members with medical training were assigned to Covid-related missions.

Mooney said he had Covid right before he was scheduled to get his first vaccine earlier in the year and had to delay his appointment until he recovered. His sense of taste and smell haven’t fully come back.

But even with his personal experience, he said the days he’s spent in the hospital so far have made the pandemic feel much more immediate.

“How many people are dying - it’s astounding,” Mooney said. “It really added a new level to the pandemic for me.”

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

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