Rapid Covid tests are in short supply, as this sign in a Salem Walgreens in Jan. 11, 2022 illustrates (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

State health officials are deploying a mass Covid testing site at Spirit Mountain Casino and hiring hundreds more people to aid overwhelmed hospitals and long-term care facilities as Oregon records a spike in Covid infections and more hospitalizations.

In a Thursday afternoon news conference, Pat Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said the state is now testing more people for Covid than it ever has before as the more infectious omicron variant of the virus has caused widespread illness across Oregon.

He said many Oregonians may still be unable to obtain a test as health officials prioritize health care settings and other institutions where Covid infections have the most serious impact.

Read Salem Reporter's guide to getting a Covid test in Marion and Polk counties here.

“We’re likely approaching the maximum capacity of our testing system to identify cases,” Allen said. “Many people in Oregon are having to wait several days for a testing appointment at a health clinic or a pharmacy. You may have to wait a couple of weeks for the test you ordered online to arrive. Those delays don't help if you're feeling sick and you want to know if you could be a risk to your family or if you can safely go to work. These frustrations are real and they may be with us for weeks.”

From Jan. 2-8, more than 258,000 Oregonians got tested for Covid, including 19,662 people in Marion and Polk counties, according to OHA data. About one in four tests in Marion and Polk counties and one in five in Oregon were positive for Covid.

The state in December ordered 6 million at-home test kits from iHealth Labs, a total of 12 million rapid tests. To date, they’ve received just under 1 million kits, or 2 million tests, Allen said, but those won’t be distributed to the general public. They’ll mostly go to institutions like hospitals, schools and other facilities serving people at higher risk of contracting Covid.

“We want to make sure tests are available to people like a nurse in the hospital, a grocery store clerk who has limited if any sick time, a head start teacher who dozens of families entrust their children to each day, a worker in a seafood processing plant who's working alongside others on the line, all of whom have families that depend on their hourly wages,” Allen said.

Hesaid Oregonians who are sick but unable to get a test should assume they have Covid and stay home for at least five days, or until their symptoms resolve.

Help for hospitals, long-term care

The state recently signed contracts with several companies to deploy hundreds more health care workers to hospitals, testing sites and long-term care facilities across the state, Allen said.

Those include a rapid relief pool of about 200 health care workers who will be available late next week and can be deployed to hospitals “on the brink of being overwhelmed,” health authority spokesman Robb Cowie said during the news conference.

About 700 additional health care workers are being recruited under a contract with Maxim Health to staff long-term care facilities and other health care facilities, and more contracts are being finalized for 600 additional long-term care nurses, Cowie said.

Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday she was deploying 700 more members of the Oregon National Guard to aid hospitals around the state with non-clinical work. With 500 called up last week, that means 1,200 guard members will soon be on duty in hospitals.

Maj. Chris Clyne, a spokesman for the Oregon Military Department, said details of where those guard members will be sent are still being determined.

The state Department of Human Services is contracting 500 providers from out of state to aid long-term care facilities seeing staffing shortages, said Fariborz Pakseret, the department director, during the news conference.

Pakseret said those workers will help free up hospital beds by allowing patients ready to leave hospital care to be discharged. Reduced capacity at long-term care facilities because of staffing shortages and Covid outbreaks has been a driver of the high number of patients at Salem Hospital for months. 

That’s because dozens of patients routinely wait in the hospital when beds in care facilities aren’t available to send them to.

The new workers being contracted are in addition to several long-term care units the department has contracted to staff at facilities around the state. Those include six units with space for 150 to provide short-term care for patients discharged from the hospital. Among them is a 12-bed unit at Salem Transitional Care, department spokeswoman Elisa Williams said. 

Another seven facilities have state-contracted units to care for Covid-positive patients so the facilities don’t have to devote their own staff to that care. Those units have a total of 188 beds statewide, and include 16 beds at Salem Transitional Care and 16 at The Springs at Willowcreek, an assisted living facility in Salem.

Schools

Colt Gill, the state’s top education official, said the Oregon Department of Education has seen “a few dozen” schools, both public and private, cancel classes or move to online instruction recently “due to staff shortages exacerbated by omicron-related staff illnesses.”

Those include the Salem-Keizer School District, Oregon’s second largest. On Tuesday, Superintendent Christy Perry announced the district would cancel all classes Friday in hopes a longer weekend would give staff and students out sick a chance to recover.

“Our educators are giving us their all in very trying times,” Gill said. “The current surge is pushing a stretched system to its limits.”

He reiterated that in-person classes remain the state’s highest priority because students generally learn better in-person, but acknowledged that individual schools or districts may need to temporarily move online because of staffing challenges.

The department has worked with the state’s Teacher Standards and Practices Commission to create an emergency substitute teacher license in an effort to expand the pool of substitute educators, and to make it easier for classroom aides and other school workers who aren’t licensed teachers to fill in when needed, Gill said.

He said decisions about operations are up to local districts, and did not outline any new steps the education department is taking to stem the staffing crisis or address high rates of illness among educators and students.

“Those circumstances are impacting every industry in Oregon,” Gill said about high rates of illness and absenteeism.

New testing site

On Saturday, the health authority and Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde will open a new high-volume testing site at Spirit Mountain Casino, about 40 minutes west of Salem. Tests are free with no appointment needed.

The casino also has Covid vaccines available.

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

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