National Guard back at Salem hospital, with less stress than fall deployment

The hospital is seeing more Covid patients than ever before, but far fewer are seriously ill, meaning soldiers and health workers are not facing the same daily death toll as during the delta surge.

A National Guard walks through the halls of Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Oregon National Guard soldiers deployed to help state hospitals last fall were not required to return in January.

But sergeant. Shane Brubaker, a 32-year-old guard 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 between cleaning the wards of the hospital’s busy emergency department.

He is one of around 120 guardsmen now assigned to the busiest hospital in the Central Valley, which has set several pandemic records in the past two weeks for the number of people with Covid in its care. . West Valley Hospital in Dallas, also operated by Salem Health, has 15 troops assigned, spokeswoman Lisa Wood said. No other hospitals in Marion or Polk County requested the Guard’s assistance.

As of Thursday, the hospital had 112 Covid-positive patients and 535 hospitalized patients. It is only authorized to care for 494 people, although federal pandemic emergency declarations have allowed the Salem hospital to exceed that cap.

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

The delta variant surge in late summer and fall taxed Oregon hospitals and often took place in the intensive care unit, where seriously ill Covid people stayed for weeks as doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists endured the anguish of watching people die on a daily basis.

Although not medical professionals, some members of the Guard worked directly with sick patients in hospitals, helping them roll over so they could breathe more easily. The stress of young soldiers watching multiple patients die daily has taken its toll on those deployed, enlisted chief Amy Almond-Schmid told the Oregon Capital Chronicle. Some struggled to reconcile the realities of their on-the-ground experience in hospitals with friends or family back home who opposed Covid vaccinations or did not believe the pandemic was serious.

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

The Salem hospital 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 people with Covid are becoming so seriously ill that they need intensive care or ventilators to help them breathe.

A sign that reads “chaos coordinator” in the Salem hospital emergency room on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

On Wednesday afternoon, bedridden patients lined the halls of the emergency department – a daily necessity to make room for everyone seeking treatment.

An office inside the department’s central area bears a nameplate appropriately reading “chaos coordinator”.

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

sergeant. Jeff Duke, of Salem, places a medical telemetry order at Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Others deliver needed supplies, walking through a windowless room in the hospital basement and pulling the right size catheter needed for a patient from a shelf with a dozen possibilities.

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

This is his third pandemic-related deployment after a stint at Oregon State Hospital and the Oregon Convention Center in Portland to help with logistics for a mass vaccination clinic.

Duke said the new deployment schedule allowed him to see his two children and drop them off at school when needed. He normally works for the Oregon Lottery and said he was happy to help the state.

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

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

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

Capt. Dave Keeley, the officer in charge of the mission at Salem Hospital, said soldiers on the mission did not see regular deaths and performed administrative or logistical work more often.

“The demand for the National Guard is to play a supporting role and that’s where we’re best suited right now,” he said.

Wright said their work, which the Federal Emergency Management Agency ultimately pays for, is helping Salem Health weather the latest wave as the hospital has 500 open jobs and sees more staff leave because that they have Covid.

“It’s been difficult for the staff,” he said.

Once that is complete, he said the hospital will once again rely more on contract workers to fill vacancies and overtime.

The custody contract runs until the end of March, although Governor Kate Brown can extend the deployment if necessary.

sergeant. Jeff Duke, of Salem, places a medical telemetry order at Salem Hospital on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

sergeant. Shane Brubaker of the Oregon National Guard remakes a bed in a patient room in the Salem Hospital Emergency Department Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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

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

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