Lane nurses to bargain; virus lingers

Health infrastructure in Lane County has dogged challenge after challenge this year – the ongoing Covid pandemic, the nationwide nursing shortage and rural access to health care are just some of the issues that arose. 

New, immune-evasive versions of the Omicron variant are spreading, and Covid-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are once again rising, although the figures remain far below last winter’s peak. Since the beginning of the pandemic, a total of 936,721 cases have been reported in Oregon. At least one in 471 residents have died from the coronavirus, a total of 8,953 deaths.

But this year the coronavirus has company: Common seasonal viruses, which lay low for the last two winters, have come roaring back.

In particular, influenza and RSV, or respiratory syncytial virus, hit early and hard this fall, causing major outbreaks that are now overlapping with a resurgent coronavirus. This viral pileup — what some are calling a “tripledemic” — has already set off an exhausting season of sickness, triggering sky-high demand for pain and fever relievers and pushing children’s hospitals to the brink.

“Our immune systems are very naive … It’s not that we’re unfamiliar with seeing disease this time of year. It’s that we are seeing it manifest in a different way,” said Jason Davis, public information officer for Lane County Public Health.

In September, several PeaceHealth clinics in Eugene voted to unionize — the first to do so in Lane County. The move is in direct response to issues brought upon by the COVID-19 pandemic. The union, PeaceHealth Providers United, will focus on addressing burnout, understaffing and higher wages. 

“They worked tirelessly through the pandemic. They have been trying to help patients there in the Eugene-Springfield area, and they just haven’t had the support of the hospital,” said Myrna Jensen, communications specialist for the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA).

Morgan Garvin M.D., a member of PeaceHealth Providers United was the first to raise alarm bells. She said that most clinicians have been working 12-14-hour shifts just to meet the clinic’s growing need. 

“Our goal with forming this union is to stabilize the staffing levels so we can meet the demand that is there,” Garvin said. “So our providers may not always have to work to their maximum capacity, every shift. Or at least to feel like PeaceHealth has met our commitment to serving the community.” 

Since voting to unionize, the workers at PeaceHealth Providers United have completed internal surveys to outline their top priorities. Garvin, a member of the bargaining team, is hopeful that talks will begin in early 2023.

The providers are organized across two Urgent Care clinics in Eugene, one Urgent Care clinic in Springfield, and the walk-in clinic located at Woodfield Station in Eugene.

“Forming a union provides us the opportunity to better advocate for our patients and ourselves. It’s exciting to work towards a common goal and see progress. I am very much looking forward to what more we can accomplish for improved care in our community,” said Kate Swank, MD.

In late November, PeaceHealth temporarily closed its Gateway Urgent Care location, something Garvin says was caused by company-wide understaffing. Garvin also said it’s not uncommon for people to use urgent care clinics as a replacement for generalized health care, placing an undue burden on the clinics’ daily operations and the staff. 

“They’ve cut off access to urgent care, so people with Medicare, Medicaid and OHP people will be forced to the ER for services,” said Garvin. “And what we do for the community in these clinics are an essential part of the healthcare infrastructure.” 

Meanwhile, ER visits at PeaceHealth in RiverBend have felt the impact of the nursing shortage, increasing wait times for patients. 

“PeaceHealth is seeing an increase in patients with respiratory symptoms seeking care at our clinics in Lane County. However, hospitalizations for influenza and RSV have been low, so the combination of RSV, flu and COVID-19 is not having a major impact on our hospital bed capacity,” said Sherri Buri McDonald, public information officer for PeaceHealth. 



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