‘Tripledemic’ Slams Oregon Health Care Systems

Photo: Steven Cornfield
A nurse administers the COVID-19 vaccine

The Oregon Nurses Association says patient numbers have overwhelmed hospital staff

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The converging COVID-19, influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) pandemics have created exhausting conditions for medical workers, and threaten to overwhelm already-taxed hospital emergency departments.

Across the country, and especially in California, health care workers are reporting patient volumes that rival the heights of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Myrna Jensen, communications specialist at the Oregon Nurses Association Jensen tells Oregon Business over email that these predictions have come to pass, and healthcare workers, as well as Oregon families, are bearing the brunt.

“For months, frontline health care personnel have been warning that we could see an unprecedented number of hospitalizations and now it is a reality,” writes Jensen.

“As the public discards masks and returns to group gatherings, RSV, COVID-19 and the flu are spreading rapidly. Patients are arriving sicker and, in some cases, fighting more than one respiratory infection. This means a higher level of care which requires more nurses and support staff.”

Jensen refers to the convergence of RSV the flu, and continuing COVID-19 as a “tripledemic,” and says healthcare workers experiencing patient volumes that rival the heights of 2020. She says nurses are leaving patients bedsides “in record number” due to insufficient staffing by hospitals.

At a Dec. 7 hearing of the House Interim Committee on Health Care, Dr. Dana Braner, chief physician at Oregon Health & Science University’s Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, said the confluence of diseases constituted the “greatest threat to children’s health in our state that we have seen in the last 30 years.”

The hearing came a few hours after Gov. Kate Brown issued an updated executive order to assist hospitals in meeting the demand. The order allows hospitals to draw on a pool of medical volunteer nurses and doctors to help provide care to patients, and allows additional flexibility to hospitals working to address the crisis.

In a press release announcing the order, Brown’s office noted that the Oregon Health Authority was pursuing supplemental nurse staffing contracts of up to $25 million to help address critical workforce shortages.

In response to high patient volumes, OHSU has suspended all non-emergency pediatric procedures, and added overflow. The OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, Legacy Health, Randall Children’s Hospital and Providence St. Vincent Medical Center have all implemented crisis standards of care.

Jensen says her organization is recommending all hospitals postpone non-essential surgeries so frontline healthcare workers can be deployed to other departments to help treat patients. She also says hospitals need to start increasing incentives for nurses to pick up extra shifts. 

Israel Angeles, CEO of nursing staffing app FleetNurse, says things have picked up more than usual in the last few weeks, since record levels of RSV began to appear in young children.

According to an infectious diseases report by the Yale School of Medicine released earlier this month, a large part of the flu increase comes from people’s lack of immunity. The report suggests humans have not been exposed to the virus over several flu seasons due to masking and other COVID-19 precautions, which can decrease immunity.

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