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Oregon health officials warn about nearing hospital capacity

November 10, 2020 GMT

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Gov. Kate Brown and Oregon health officials warned Tuesday of the capacity challenges facing hospitals as COVID-19 case counts continue to spike in the state.

The Oregon Health Authority recorded a record 285 confirmed COVID-19 patients in hospitals Tuesday — a 57% increase in just the past week and an 83% increase in the past four weeks.

“There are limitations to what Oregon’s healthcare system can handle,” said Dana Hargunani, the health authority’s chief medical officer. “Even with regional planning and the hard work of all of our hospital partners, we cannot handle ever growing high daily case counts and widespread hospitalizations.”

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Currently out of Oregon’s 703 listed intensive care unit beds, 27% are available and about 18% of non-ICU adult hospital beds in the state are available, based on data on from the health authority’s website.

The previous record for hospitalizations in the state, outside of November, was 179 in October. Prior to the end of October the record of COVID-19 related hospitalizations was 165 in July.

In Portland-area hospitals COVID-19 hospitalizations have increased by 57% in the last week. Other areas, such as Jackson and Josephine counties in southwestern counties have increased even more — 162%.

“Our fear that this virus would spread out of control as the colder months set in is now becoming a frightening reality,” Brown said.

Health officials said that if hospitals do reach capacity, facilities could postpone elective procedures, use hospital beds or wings that are currently unused, add staffing to their inpatient units or send patients to other hospitals, both in the state and in other states where there is availability.

“Hospitals have a spectrum of tools they can utilize to manage bed capacity such as in face of a surge of COVID patients,” said Tim Heider, a spokesperson for the Oregon Health Authority.

Some hospitals have already begun to use these tools, both during the devastating wildfires and the increase in COVID-19 cases.

Hargunani said that the plans in place leave Oregon hospitals much better prepared to handle high case counts than in February.

However, the system is flexible and has capacity only to a certain point.

“For this reason, you’ve heard from state officials for months that we need each individual Oregonian to take steps to limit the spread of this virus,” Hargunani said. “We must keep a new surge in cases from overwhelming our system.”

Officials concerns about nearing hospital capacity emerged as daily cases reach an alarming rate.

“This is very serious. Oregon is heading down the wrong road,” Brown said. “While we have plans in place to share beds and ventilators if necessary, that needs to be a last resort.”

The Oregon Health Authority reported 771 new COVID-19 cases Tuesday, bringing the total since the start of the pandemic to 51,909 cases. The death toll is 737.

On Saturday state officials reported a record number of 988 daily cases.

In an effort to slow the rate of transmission, Brown announced last week that nine counties will be placed on a two-week pause on social activities.

The updated safety measures include halting visitations to long-term care facilities, reducing the capacity of indoor dining at restaurants to 50 people, encouraging all business to mandate work from home and urging Oregonians not to gather with people who do not live in their household, but if they do to limit it to six people.

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These pause measures will be in effect from Nov. 11 through Nov. 25, for Baker, Clackamas, Malheur, Marion, Multnomah, Jackson, Umatilla, Union and Washington counties.

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Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.