There was a time earlier this summer when April Rivera and the staff at the drive-through Covid testing site in southern Oregon where she worked had considered closing their doors because demand was so low.
Nou, hundreds of patients are lining up at the Asante Rogue regional medical center’s testing site in Medford every day, filling the temporary drive-through in a strip mall parking lot. Even the national guard has been called in to help. Some patients are arriving so sick they’ve been taken away in ambulances while still in line.
Despite the widespread availability of vaccines, this region of Oregon is in the grip of an intense Covid-19 surge that has filled local hospitals to capacity, overwhelmed healthcare workers and killed 37 people in the last two weeks.
Verlede maand, cases in the Medford area in Jackson county were growing faster than anywhere else in the US, driven by the hyper-contagious Delta variant and a low vaccination rate.
On Friday afternoon at the drive-through testing site, under a thick haze of wildfire smoke, a steady stream of patients waited in their cars to receive tests. A man pulled down his Donald Trump face mask so a healthcare worker could administer the swab, before taking the sample into a nearby tent. The site sees an average of 550 daily patients, fewer than the peak last month, when the line of cars snaked around the building, across the large parking lot and into the street. Demand has far exceeded that of last fall, says Rivera.
Oregon is grappling with a devastating surge in Covid-19 cases, which officials expected would peak this week. The state has more people hospitalized than at any other point in the pandemic. The increase has overwhelmed the state’s healthcare system and left counties scrambling to find space to store bodies. Oregon’s hospital capacity is also hampering the state’s ability to treat patients. The state has the fewest number of hospital beds per population in the US, by design, because it has emphasized primary community care.
Oregon has one of the highest vaccination rates among US states with 67% of residents 18 en ouer vaccinated. But that rate is much lower in southern and rural counties in the state, which are contributing to many of the new cases, Chunhuei Chi, the director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University, told the Guardian last month. Though the governor has instituted a statewide mask mandate, basic safety measures such as masks are controversial in many rural parts of Oregon. A school superintendent in eastern Oregon was recently fired after enforcing the state mask mandate.
The crisis is particularly severe in Jackson county, where just 54% of people 18 and over are fully vaccinated. Though cases appear to have peaked last month, according to New York Times data, hospitalizations are up 24% and show no signs of slowing as the county continues to grapple with resistance to the vaccine. Southern Oregon University announced last week it would return to remote learning for a few weeks due to the rising cases, Jefferson Public Radio reported.
Verlede maand, 2,000 mense, carrying signs that read “stop the mandate” and “my body, my choice”, gathered outside Rogue regional medical center to protest vaccine requirements for healthcare workers, while inside overworked doctors and nurses fought to save the life of one of their dozens of Covid-19 patients.
“It was quite painful,” said Dr Somnath Ghosh, an ICU doctor and the hospital’s vice-president of medical affairs. “A patient’s daughter had to drive by all those protesters. The entire ICU was filled with Covid. She was yelling at the crowd that ‘my dad is dying inside’.”
The vast majority of Covid patients at Rogue regional medical center are unvaccinated, Ghosh said. As of last week, the hospital had 180 Covid patients, 92% of whom were unvaccinated; 51 in the intensive care unit, 98% of whom were unvaccinated; en 35 people on ventilators, all unvaccinated.
“This is unprecedented,” Ghosh said. “It’s the same peak that New York and Italy experienced. It’s absolutely stunning and what makes it sad is that New York and Italy didn’t have the benefit of a vaccine, but we do.”
Rogue regional medical center has never seen so many patients in critical condition, and patients are overflowing into other units. Staff have been forced to to repurpose other areas of the hospital to function as an intensive care unit, and to delay hundreds of surgeries and other treatments.
“We have cancer patients who aren’t getting their workups done for the sole reason that hospital beds are being occupied by unvaccinated patients, so the ramifications of this wave will last months or years to come,” Ghosh said.
Ghosh says overworked staff are burned out by a crisis that many view as a preventable crisis. “It’s taking an emotional toll on them,” Ghosh said. “Compassion fatigue is a real thing – the problem is we cannot afford compassion fatigue. Medical professionalism mandates that we focus on the disease in front of us and not the behavior or choices that led to it.”
The level of resistance to vaccines in this largely conservative county came as a surprise to even longtime residents and healthcare professionals.
“I thought we’d find our footing, we’d figure out the mitigation strategies, we’d put them forward and then people would do them,” said Dr Jim Shames, Jackson county’s longtime health officer. “But it has become a political cause célèbre to not wear masks because you’re being told to, not get the vaccine because you’re being told to. I didn’t see that coming.”
The county is working to increase vaccinations, which experts such as Chi say is the only way out of the current surge, and the pandemic. Those who believe the vaccine is harmful make up a small minority, Shames said, and many more of the unvaccinated are confused about the vaccine or aren’t paying attention.
“You have to make sure vaccines and testing are going to be accessible to all – those who live in rural communities, those who don’t speak English, those who don’t come into public health,” Shames said.
The surge has left the community divided and volatile, healthcare workers and residents say. Kathy Sanger, 68, is vaccinated but no longer feels safe going out to eat or meeting with friends, after being exposed to Covid-19 at a small gathering, and learning an acquaintance was opposed to the vaccine. She badly needs a knee surgery scheduled for later this week, but doctors have warned her it might be postponed.
“I’m thinking we all got this far, if we can just hang in there, but there’s all these people adamant about not being vaccinated," sy het gese. “Everybody is weary, it’s just awful. ”