A national guardsman walks through the halls at Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Oregon National Guard soldiers deployed to aid hospitals around the state last fall weren’t required to return in January.

But Sgt. Shane Brubaker, a 32-year-old guard member from Woodburn, volunteered to report to Salem Hospital earlier this month after serving at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend during the last deployment.

“It’s a good thing to do to help the community,” Brubaker said during an interview in between cleaning rooms in the hospital’s busy emergency department.

He’s one of about 120 guard members now assigned to the mid-Valley’s busiest hospital, which has set multiple pandemic records in the past two weeks for the number of people with Covid under its care. West Valley Hospital in Dallas, also operated by Salem Health, has 15 soldiers assigned, spokeswoman Lisa Wood said. No other hospital in Marion or Polk county has requested assistance from the Guard.

As of Thursday, the hospital had 112 Covid-positive patients, and 535 inpatients. It's only licensed to care for 494 people, though federal pandemic emergency declarations have allowed Salem Hospital to go over that cap.

Sgt. Shane Brubaker, of the Oregon National Guard, organizes a patient room in the emergency department at Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The delta variant surge during late summer and fall taxed hospitals around Oregon and often played out in the intensive care unit, where people severely ill with Covid stayed for weeks as doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists endured the anguish of watching people die daily.

Though they weren't medical professionals, some guard members worked directly with sick patients in hospitals, helping turn them over so they could breathe more easily. The stress for young soldiers watching multiple patients die daily took a toll on those deployed, senior enlisted leader Amy Almond-Schmid told Oregon Capital Chronicle. Some struggled to reconcile the realities of their on-the-ground experience in hospitals with friends or family at home who opposed vaccination against Covid or didn't believe the pandemic was serious.

The omicron surge is playing out more in the emergency room, said Karl Wright, director of supply chain services for Salem Health.

Salem Hospital’s was the busiest in the Pacific Northwest before the pandemic, and is now seeing its usual mix of patients plus those sick with Covid who need emergency care. But fewer of those with Covid are becoming so severely ill that they require intensive care or ventilators to help them breathe.

A sign reading 'chaos coordinator' in the emergency room at Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

On Wednesday afternoon, patients in beds lined the hallways of the emergency department - a daily necessity to make space for everyone seeking treatment.

A desk inside the central area of the department bears a nameplate appropriately reading “chaos coordinator.”

For the guard members deployed to the hospital, fewer are involved in tasks working directly with patients. Some, like Brubaker, are assigned to clean rooms, which helps the hospital take in new patients more quickly.

Sgt. Jeff Duke, of Salem, puts together an order for medical telemetry at Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Others deliver needed supplies, roaming a windowless room in the hospital’s basement and pulling the correct size of catheter required for a patient off a shelf with a dozen possibilities.

Sgt. Jeff Duke, 30, who lives in Salem, is among those working the supply room.

It’s his third pandemic-related deployment following a stint at Oregon State Hospital and the Oregon Convention Center in Portland to help with the logistics of a mass vaccination clinic.

Duke said the new deployment schedule has let him see his two children and drop them off at school as needed. He normally works for the Oregon Lottery and said he’s happy to help the state.

“I’m here for whatever they need me,” he said.

Capt. Dave Keeley, of the Oregon National Guard, speaks with a reporter at Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

The mental health toll of this surge is lower for both soldiers and health care workers.

Capt. Dave Keeley, the officer in charge of the Salem Hospital mission, said soldiers on the mission aren’t seeing regular deaths and are more often doing administrative or logistics work.

“The demand for the National Guard is to be in a support role and that’s where we’re best fit right now,” he said.

Wright said their labor, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency ultimately pays for, is helping Salem Health get through the latest surge when the hospital has 500 open jobs and is seeing higher numbers of employees out because they have Covid.

“It’s been hard on the staff,” he said.

Once that ends, he said the hospital will again rely more on contract workers to fill open jobs and overtime shifts.

The guard contract runs through the end of March, though Gov. Kate Brown can extend the deployment if needed.

Sgt. Jeff Duke, of Salem, puts together an order for medical telemetry at Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Sgt. Shane Brubaker, of the Oregon National Guard, remakes a bed in a patient room in the emergency department at Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

National Guard Spc. Raechel Shaw-Bell, of Salem, counts out medical supplies at Salem Health on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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

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