COVID-19

Hospitals face staffing crisis; FEMA pulls out of the Grove

ERIN TIERNEY/ THE CHRONICLE. Sen. Ron Wyden speaks at PeaceHealth RiverBend in Springfield last week.

As the Omicron variant continues to surge, an unprecedented staffing crisis has smacked local hospitals, leaving the remaining staff stretched thin and exhausted as we enter the third year of the pandemic. Outside of the hospitals, public officials are working to squelch flared tensions among some residents, whose reactions are inflamed in part because of pediatric vaccination eligibility in recent months.

All the while, the message remains clear across all public health and local government sectors: Getting vaccinated and boosted is the safest, fastest and most efficient way to squash this pandemic and to navigate our way out of the “Covid fatigue” that many are experiencing.

U.S. Senator Ron Wyden visited PeaceHealth RiverBend in Springfield on Jan. 21 to stress the severity of the staffing crisis in local hospitals.

The staffing shortage is no joke, and neither is the enervation among staff.

“The truth is a lot of our staff are just really, really tired,” said Marie Stehmer, PeaceHealth Oregon’s senior director.

According to Stehmer and Joseph Waltasti, communications specialist at PeaceHealth, there are:

• 235 open positions at PeaceHealth RiverBend in Springfield

• 10 open positions at PeaceHealth Cottage Grove Community Medical Center

• Six total open positions between the Creswell, Cottage Grove and Dexter PeaceHealth clinics

The pandemic is not the sole cause of the nurse shortage, but it certainly exasperated the need.

Across all Lane County PeaceHealth hospitals, about 100 staff members are at home quarantining, according to Steve Adams, the county’s Covid incident commander, who spoke at Sen. Wyden’s news conference last week.

“Even before Covid, we were struggling with staffing,” Stehmer said. But just before the pandemic, the network was well on its way to filling all its positions. PeaceHealth traditionally has been able to fill nursing positions partially through its robust nurse residency program at RiverBend and the University District. If there were 100 nurse positions available to new graduates, she said PeaceHealth would get around 300 applicants.

“Then Covid hit,” Stehmer said. “Now the number of people coming out of nursing school has plummeted, which has contributed to the staffing shortage we are experiencing.” This year, they have had only 13 applicants.

One contributing factor is that the pandemic made student access to hospital facilities nearly impossible, as students could not go onsite to do required lab work. “It is a lot of really hands-on work, and if you can’t get into the hospitals, you can’t get trained,” she said.

Stehmer said the network is looking to “reinvigorate that process” to incentivize more nurses to join the workforce. “Because there are so many shortages, the wages have moved in the market,” she said, noting that improving the staffing numbers “is something that we’re working actively on.”

Active messaging in support of vaccinations continues among public officials. Sen. Wyden last week topped off his news conference with a plea for residents to get vaccinated and boosted amid the Omicron surge.

It’s all in the numbers. As of Jan. 25 in Lane County, 78.2 percent of residents over 17 years old have received one dose, with 5,794 in need of a second dose, and 91,977 in need of a booster shot.

“It is my strongest, fervent hope that every one who can (will) get vaccinated,” Wyden said.

But aggression from those not in support of vaccinations came to a head in Cottage Grove over the weekend when the Federal Emergency Management Agency rolled into Bohemia Park to host a drive-thru clinic — the first of its kind in the Grove.

Signs that read “FEMA go home” and “the media is the real virus” were held aloft by protestors at Bohemia Park. Eyewitnesses said that protesters, with guns on hip, harassed volunteers and residents in line to be vaccinated.

“FEMA realized that it couldn’t have the clinic at (Bohemia Park) because there are too many points of entry,” said Richard Meyers, the city manager for Cottage Grove. “Protesters were getting into the vaccine tents and taking pictures of parents with kids getting vaccinated.”

The clinic was scheduled to run through Feb. 4, but by Monday, Jan. 24 — just two days into the clinic’s run — FEMA decided to pull up stakes.

FEMA representatives did not respond by presstime Tuesday as to the exact reason for its exit, nor if it would return.

Meyers said that the presence of a FEMA refrigerator truck used to keep the vaccines cold may have spurred more controversy, as the City-run vaccine clinics that are held in partnership with McCoy’s Pharmacy on Mondays and Thursdays are never met with protesters.

Despite the shutdown, Meyers said that the City continues to look for additional resources for residents to get vaccinated. Jason Davis, public health information officer with Lane County Public Health, said the county is doing the same.

The county, through its data on vaccinations and Covid cases, was able to identify different communities that could benefit from additional vaccine resources, Cottage Grove being one of them. Consequently, FEMA volunteers from Florida and Texas rolled into Cottage Grove to help fill that need, Davis said.

Some of those protesters attended Monday’s city council meeting, with claims made about the local city government “not doing its job” and taking part in providing “lethal vaccines” to its residents.

“They threatened (council) that if we continue to provide vaccines that are ‘poison’ that we were going to be held accountable and sued … they didn’t want FEMA here and are flat-out against masks and vaccines,” Meyers said.

Councilor Mike Fleck said this type of behavior from his community is “unacceptable.”

“It’s one thing to protest if mandates are being forced on you. It’s a completely different story when you’re trying to stop people from exercising their right to choose to get the vaccine,” said Fleck, who also serves on the Lane County Public Health Advisory Committee. He said at Monday’s meeting that he is “appalled that somebody would take away their right to choose for themselves, and is “ashamed that that has happened in our town.”

Stehmer said that nursing staff is experiencing similar hostility among patients, particularly at the University District location. Training has been established for staff to learn de-escalation tools and undergo crisis training.

“It’s ongoing work,” she said, and encourages patients to treat hospital staff with respect and appreciation rather than with aggression.

Fleck agrees that respect should be more generously spread.

“We as a nation are just so overwhelmed and tired. I just don’t think we’re coping very well,” Fleck said. “I’m hoping that we’re going to get beyond this. I think the way to do that is to try to talk with respect, or at least reach an agreement to disagree. That would be my hope.”

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