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Health care workers running on fumes as Oregon vaccine mandate's Oct. 18 deadline looms

“This is devastating. I don't know how long we can keep this up to be honest with you,” Salem Health CEO Cheryl Wolfe said.

Posted: Sep 4, 2021 4:07 PM

SALEM, Ore. — Doctors and nurses have been vocal about the importance of getting the vaccine. Now, as they struggle to keep up with the overwhelming surge of COVID patients, there’s another possible challenge on the horizon: the threat of more staff leaving as the October deadline for Oregon's vaccine mandate approaches.

“This is an ugly disease and the reality is we're losing this battle,” said Salem Health CEO Cheryl Wolfe at a Chamber of Commerce meeting Thursday.

“The people that go into the ICU aren’t going home. So that’s the grim reality,” she said.

Wolfe was honest about what health care workers are seeing right now as she spoke to business owners and leaders.

Wolfe said she was frank as she spoke at the Chamber of Commerce meeting because she wants to call attention to what’s happening inside hospitals. She hopes business leaders will help and encourage employees and community members to get vaccinated.

“When you see a young mother who's unvaccinated, who's pregnant, and you do a C-section on the young mother to save the baby and we know the mother's not going to make it, that’s the reality of what's happening right now. I'm not going to sugar coat this for you,” said Wolfe.

Wolfe said at this stage of the pandemic, ages of patients with COVID are skewing younger. She said the elderly population has a good vaccination rate. Unfortunately, Wolfe also said they’ve seen more pediatric cases.

“In our community we’ve seen an increase in the number of pediatric patient cases that have to be hospitalized, and we’ve sent two to specialty hospitals because they are so sick and beyond the capability of what we are able to take care of. So, this is real,” she said.

CORONAVIRUS
Health care workers running on fumes as Oregon vaccine mandate's Oct. 18 deadline looms
“This is devastating. I don't know how long we can keep this up to be honest with you,” Salem Health CEO Cheryl Wolfe said.

Author: Christine Pitawanich
Published: 8:39 PM PDT September 3, 2021
Updated: 9:03 PM PDT September 3, 2021
Facebook Twitter
SALEM, Ore. — Doctors and nurses have been vocal about the importance of getting the vaccine. Now, as they struggle to keep up with the overwhelming surge of COVID patients, there’s another possible challenge on the horizon: the threat of more staff leaving as the October deadline for Oregon's vaccine mandate approaches.

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“This is an ugly disease and the reality is we're losing this battle,” said Salem Health CEO Cheryl Wolfe at a Chamber of Commerce meeting Thursday.

“The people that go into the ICU aren’t going home. So that’s the grim reality,” she said.

Wolfe was honest about what health care workers are seeing right now as she spoke to business owners and leaders.

Wolfe said she was frank as she spoke at the Chamber of Commerce meeting because she wants to call attention to what’s happening inside hospitals. She hopes business leaders will help and encourage employees and community members to get vaccinated.

RELATED: Oregon nonprofit aims to educate people on safety, effectiveness of vaccines

“When you see a young mother who's unvaccinated, who's pregnant, and you do a C-section on the young mother to save the baby and we know the mother's not going to make it, that’s the reality of what's happening right now. I'm not going to sugar coat this for you,” said Wolfe.

Hospitals deal with more COVID patients and more deaths
On Thursday, Wolfe said she had 93 COVID-positive patients in the hospital, the vast majority unvaccinated. In just one day, that number went up to 102. On Friday, she said 22 people were in the ICU with 16 of them on ventilators, something they’ve never seen before. Wolfe said the ICU is full and important surgeries like cancer removal are getting canceled.

RELATED: Elective surgeries postponed in Oregon because hospitals are filled with COVID patients

Wolfe said at this stage of the pandemic, ages of patients with COVID are skewing younger. She said the elderly population has a good vaccination rate. Unfortunately, Wolfe also said they’ve seen more pediatric cases.

“In our community we’ve seen an increase in the number of pediatric patient cases that have to be hospitalized, and we’ve sent two to specialty hospitals because they are so sick and beyond the capability of what we are able to take care of. So, this is real,” she said.

Wolfe said the average age of people diagnosed with COVID is about 52 years old. She said that average is also reflected in the ICU.

Wolfe said there are a lot of people are dying. Many of them are unvaccinated.

“We’re losing many more people than we’ve ever lost before in this pandemic, and it’s taken its toll on our staff,” said Wolfe.

This week, Wolfe signed a contract for a refrigerated truck that would be used to hold people who have died. Wolfe said she hopes they won’t have to use it, but they are preparing.

“Our anticipation, based on what we’ve already seen, is that we won’t have enough room for all the people that pass away in the next couple of weeks,” said Wolfe.

All the death and disease takes a mental toll on health care workers, some of whom have left the profession.

Because visitors aren’t allowed into the ICU, a nurse will often hold a device allowing family members to see the patient on a video call. The nurse’s other hand is wrapped around the hand of the dying patient.

“I'm talking to you as a nurse today,” said Wolfe at the meeting. “This is devastating. I don't know how long we can keep this up to be honest with you.”

Now, more staff who disagree with the state’s vaccine mandate for health care workers may leave too. Wolfe said about 25% of all staff are currently unvaccinated. The deadline for health care workers to be fully vaccinated is Oct. 18.

“Some of them will leave. There’s no doubt about that,” said Wolfe.

“We have 6,000 employees, so it is close to 1,200 people that are unvaccinated right now.”

Addressing staffing concerns

Wolfe said she’s recently hired on more nurses and hopes the addition of Oregon National Guard members may help. Other hospitals are also facing the precarious staffing situation in the midst of a deadly COVID surge.

“The amount of work that truly the COVID crisis has put on to our staff is really significant,” said Lisa Vance, president of operations and strategy for Providence in Oregon, Alaska, Montana and Washington.

“The high death rate of patients that move to the ICU takes a toll on people,” Vance said.

In addition, Vance confirmed that before the pandemic, across the United States there was a staffing shortage. It was exacerbated by the pandemic.

Now, Providence has announced a $220 million investment to retain staff and fill positions. It’s offering sign-on and referral bonuses as well as giving out $1,000 for all Providence caregivers as a way to thank employees.

“It’s been very well-received, I would say, and sometimes it’s not even just the amount but the intention that we’re all trying to do this together,” said Vance.

Vance said right now, Providence is looking for all levels of caregivers to join the health system’s ranks.

“We need caregivers to be able to care for this pandemic and the caregivers at Providence are our number priority. I would also say, please, get the vaccine," she said.

Wolfe echoed the importance of vaccination. Like many doctors and nurses, Wolfe, who is a registered nurse herself, said anyone eligible to get vaccinated should do it. While the vaccine doesn’t necessarily prevent someone from getting COVID, it is likely to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death. She is in support of the governor’s vaccine mandate for health care workers.

“I need my health care workers healthy and able to work. And if they get a breakthrough infection, they can go home recover, have their 10-day quarantine and be back at work. I need them,” said Wolfe, who also emphasized that unvaccinated health care providers could accidentally pass the virus onto patients.

CORONAVIRUS
Health care workers running on fumes as Oregon vaccine mandate's Oct. 18 deadline looms
“This is devastating. I don't know how long we can keep this up to be honest with you,” Salem Health CEO Cheryl Wolfe said.

Author: Christine Pitawanich
Published: 8:39 PM PDT September 3, 2021
Updated: 9:03 PM PDT September 3, 2021
Facebook Twitter
SALEM, Ore. — Doctors and nurses have been vocal about the importance of getting the vaccine. Now, as they struggle to keep up with the overwhelming surge of COVID patients, there’s another possible challenge on the horizon: the threat of more staff leaving as the October deadline for Oregon's vaccine mandate approaches.

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“This is an ugly disease and the reality is we're losing this battle,” said Salem Health CEO Cheryl Wolfe at a Chamber of Commerce meeting Thursday.

“The people that go into the ICU aren’t going home. So that’s the grim reality,” she said.

Wolfe was honest about what health care workers are seeing right now as she spoke to business owners and leaders.

Wolfe said she was frank as she spoke at the Chamber of Commerce meeting because she wants to call attention to what’s happening inside hospitals. She hopes business leaders will help and encourage employees and community members to get vaccinated.

RELATED: Oregon nonprofit aims to educate people on safety, effectiveness of vaccines

“When you see a young mother who's unvaccinated, who's pregnant, and you do a C-section on the young mother to save the baby and we know the mother's not going to make it, that’s the reality of what's happening right now. I'm not going to sugar coat this for you,” said Wolfe.

Hospitals deal with more COVID patients and more deaths
On Thursday, Wolfe said she had 93 COVID-positive patients in the hospital, the vast majority unvaccinated. In just one day, that number went up to 102. On Friday, she said 22 people were in the ICU with 16 of them on ventilators, something they’ve never seen before. Wolfe said the ICU is full and important surgeries like cancer removal are getting canceled.

RELATED: Elective surgeries postponed in Oregon because hospitals are filled with COVID patients

Wolfe said at this stage of the pandemic, ages of patients with COVID are skewing younger. She said the elderly population has a good vaccination rate. Unfortunately, Wolfe also said they’ve seen more pediatric cases.

“In our community we’ve seen an increase in the number of pediatric patient cases that have to be hospitalized, and we’ve sent two to specialty hospitals because they are so sick and beyond the capability of what we are able to take care of. So, this is real,” she said.

Wolfe said the average age of people diagnosed with COVID is about 52 years old. She said that average is also reflected in the ICU.

Wolfe said there are a lot of people are dying. Many of them are unvaccinated.

“We’re losing many more people than we’ve ever lost before in this pandemic, and it’s taken its toll on our staff,” said Wolfe.

This week, Wolfe signed a contract for a refrigerated truck that would be used to hold people who have died. Wolfe said she hopes they won’t have to use it, but they are preparing.

“Our anticipation, based on what we’ve already seen, is that we won’t have enough room for all the people that pass away in the next couple of weeks,” said Wolfe.

The mental toll on health care workers
All the death and disease takes a mental toll on health care workers, some of whom have left the profession.

Because visitors aren’t allowed into the ICU, a nurse will often hold a device allowing family members to see the patient on a video call. The nurse’s other hand is wrapped around the hand of the dying patient.

“I'm talking to you as a nurse today,” said Wolfe at the meeting. “This is devastating. I don't know how long we can keep this up to be honest with you.”

Now, more staff who disagree with the state’s vaccine mandate for health care workers may leave too. Wolfe said about 25% of all staff are currently unvaccinated. The deadline for health care workers to be fully vaccinated is Oct. 18.

“Some of them will leave. There’s no doubt about that,” said Wolfe.

“We have 6,000 employees, so it is close to 1,200 people that are unvaccinated right now.”

Addressing staffing concerns
Wolfe said she’s recently hired on more nurses and hopes the addition of Oregon National Guard members may help. Other hospitals are also facing the precarious staffing situation in the midst of a deadly COVID surge.

“The amount of work that truly the COVID crisis has put on to our staff is really significant,” said Lisa Vance, president of operations and strategy for Providence in Oregon, Alaska, Montana and Washington.

“The high death rate of patients that move to the ICU takes a toll on people,” Vance said.

In addition, Vance confirmed that before the pandemic, across the United States there was a staffing shortage. It was exacerbated by the pandemic.

Now, Providence has announced a $220 million investment to retain staff and fill positions. It’s offering sign-on and referral bonuses as well as giving out $1,000 for all Providence caregivers as a way to thank employees.

“It’s been very well-received, I would say, and sometimes it’s not even just the amount but the intention that we’re all trying to do this together,” said Vance.

Vance said right now, Providence is looking for all levels of caregivers to join the health system’s ranks.

“We need caregivers to be able to care for this pandemic and the caregivers at Providence are our number priority. I would also say, please, get the vaccine," she said.

Wolfe echoed the importance of vaccination. Like many doctors and nurses, Wolfe, who is a registered nurse herself, said anyone eligible to get vaccinated should do it. While the vaccine doesn’t necessarily prevent someone from getting COVID, it is likely to prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death. She is in support of the governor’s vaccine mandate for health care workers.

“I need my health care workers healthy and able to work. And if they get a breakthrough infection, they can go home recover, have their 10-day quarantine and be back at work. I need them,” said Wolfe, who also emphasized that unvaccinated health care providers could accidentally pass the virus onto patients.

Addressing what people have been saying

In addition, during the Chamber of Commerce meeting, concerns about mask wearing were brought up. Wolfe reiterated the importance of mask wearing, saying that data indicate that wearing a mask reduces the overall spread of the virus, whether it’s an N95 or cloth mask.

Wolfe also addressed a conspiracy theory calling into question the cause of death for some people whose deaths are attributed to COVID.

“When you’ve got 16 people on ventilators because of COVID, somebody may have cancer, [but] they didn’t die from cancer. They’re dying from COVID,” she said.

Wolfe has also seen callous statements online directed at health care workers.

“I do want to make one statement there are a lot of statements out there about how we in health care signed up to do this work and stop whining. We’re not whining. We didn’t sign up for a pandemic and we didn’t sign up to, every single day, lose people and not be able to save people. We save people. We lose some. We’re losing a lot,” said Wolfe.

At the end of the day, Wolfe said they're still taking care of patients who come in needing help. But it's taxing staff with emotions running high and resiliency low.

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