St. Charles CEO says health system is preparing for worst-case scenario


The COVID situation at St. Charles continues to worsen, but the health system’s CEO says they’re working around the clock to prepare for a worst-case scenario.

In a letter to the community, Joe Sluka said that scenario is already playing out across the state.

“In Grants Pass, the demand for ICU beds is so great, that the hospital is putting two patients in each ICU room. And with staffing shortages plaguing health care throughout the nation, nursing ratios in Southern Oregon have deteriorated,” he said. “It’s not uncommon now for one nurse to care for as many as 10 patients (when normally a nurse might care for three or four.)”

Meanwhile, a COVID patient died at the hospital in Roseburg while waiting for an ICU bed.

“The exhausted team that is working so hard to save people had no words other than, ‘We didn’t have enough,’ Sluka said, adding that St. Charles is preparing for a similar reality.

“We have 58 ventilators in our health system (for all patients including infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) – but only 20 of the high-capacity-style that we typically use for treatment in the Bend ICU,” he said. “We are asking the state to send us more, but it is a complicated process and we are unsure when or if the ask will be met.”

On Thursday morning the hospital reported a record 77 COVID patients; 17 are in the ICU and 15 are on ventilators. St. Charles has 24 ICU beds in Bend; 30 total throughout the system.

Mike Johson, St. Charles’ senior data scientist, told Central Oregon Daily News he expects the hospital to have more than 100 COVID patients by the first week in September.

Chief Medical Officer Doug Merrill said the hospital is reconfiguring areas to address the surge.

“We have prepped to go to double rooming, cohorting of patients with COVID, as needed,” he said. “We have lowered even more our operating room activity and are redeploying folks who normally work in the operating room and the recovery room to work up on the floors.”

St. Charles has re-purposed portions of its recovery room and all of its space that is normally used for diagnostic work such as endoscopies and colonoscopies to care for COVID patients.

But while there is physical space available to house the rising numbers of COVID patients, there aren’t enough nurses to provide the advanced care COVID patients require.

Sluka laid out a series of steps the hospital has taken to handle the current situation:

  • About 130 members of the Oregon National Guard are here working in our facilities in non-clinical roles. These men and women willingly left their families and jobs to help us through this trying time. They are gracious and incredibly eager to help with any task including re-stocking supplies on the floors, delivering food to patients, helping to support fit testing our caregivers for N-95 masks, screening visitors at our entrances and so much more. We are beyond grateful for their help.
  • We have requested nursing and other clinical resources through the Oregon Health Authority, and FEMA. After advocating as strongly as possible, we now anticipate receiving support as early as this weekend. This will be a tremendous help in allowing us to serve those with acute health care needs during this crisis.
  • Last week the St. Charles team worked tirelessly to set up an Urgent Care clinic in our 2600 NE Neff Road building, along with a drive-through COVID testing site. These efforts have helped to reduce the patient volumes in the Bend Emergency Department.
  • We are also working to expand our ability to provide monoclonal antibody therapy for patients who test positive for COVID-19 to more sites throughout the region. Our experience with this therapy so far has been very encouraging in keeping COVID-positive patients from needing hospitalization.

On Sunday, St. Charles Health System formally submitted to the state its request for nearly 200 nurses, respiratory therapists and certified nursing assistants.

Specifically, the health system asked for:

  • 58 acute care nurses
  • 76 critical care nurses
  • 9 Emergency Department nurses
  • 5 respiratory therapists
  • 46 certified nursing assistants

It’s unclear whether St. Charles will receive the full number of health care workers requested, when exactly they will arrive and how long they will stay. Considered a state resource, the travelers could be redeployed to other high-need hospitals in Oregon at any time.

Sluka said it wasn’t too late for the community to help the hospital deal with the surge.

“If you haven’t yet, please get vaccinated. The FDA granted full approval of the Pfizer COVID vaccine this week and we are hopeful this news will lead to higher vaccination rates,” he said. “And as mask mandates – indoor and outdoor – return, we ask that you abide by them. Get vaccinated for yourself and wear your mask for others. At this point it may be the very least you can do to ensure your loved ones have access to any kind of health care if they need it in the next few weeks.”


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