On Friday, James Strother’s fever began to climb.
Marge Strother knew her husband had a history of sepsis and septic shock — life-threatening incidents related to his ongoing need to wear a catheter.
A home health nurse said they needed to call 911. But when the emergency responders arrived, they said they had just dropped someone off at the hospital and had to leave him in the waiting room due to a shortage of space at CHI Mercy Medical Center.
James Strother did not have COVID-19, but the hospital was filled to capacity with people who did.
He couldn’t sit up or stand, so Marge Strother decided to wait and monitor his temperature. A few hours later it had climbed to 103.5 degrees.
Marge Strother called back and her husband was taken to the hospital.
“They had one room left in the ER and they put him in there,” she said. “Septic shock can kill you and sepsis can kill you and he needed to go into the ICU or PCU but there were no beds because they were taken up by the COVID people.”
Around 3:30 a.m., the hospital called to say they’d found a bed for James Strother on the surgical floor.
He never did get an ICU bed, Marge Strother said, but he was treated successfully and by Monday he returned home.
But Marge Strother is still angry.
She has no complaint with the hospital staff, who she said did the best they could.
She’s angry at the people who didn’t get vaccinated and who make up the bulk of those hospitalized with COVID-19.
“I was livid that my husband’s life was put at risk because people were too ignorant to look at the science or too political,” said Marge Strother, who describes herself as a highly conservative person but one who worked for 35 years in the pharmaceutical industry.
“Now I’d vote for Trump tomorrow. It’s not political with me, it’s science,” she said.
Tech Republic reported the Centers for Disease Control had identified four counties across the country with the highest risk of having more COVID-19 cases than their hospitals could handle. Douglas County, it said, was one of them.
Tech Republic couldn’t predict the rise of the delta variant, which is much more contagious than the original strain that first reared its ugly head in Douglas County in March 2020.
It couldn’t account for the vaccines now widely available either, nor for the significant percentage of county residents who would remain unvaccinated.
But did Tech Republic get it right? How bad is the situation at Douglas County’s main hospital?
“We are running at or near capacity depending on the hospital unit, as we have been for the last few weeks,” said Mercy Chief Medical Officer Jason Gray.
Gray said as of Thursday, 72 of the 114 patients at Mercy — more than 60% — were COVID-19 patients.
Douglas County Public Health Officer Bob Dannenhoffer said that’s not likely to improve in the near future.
“We predict that the need for hospitalizations will increase for at least the next few weeks,” he said.
Some surgeries have had to be postponed and tragically, last week Mercy announced that a patient had died while being treated in the emergency room but waiting for an ICU bed.
Gray said as the surge spreads throughout the state, it will become increasingly difficult, maybe impossible, to transfer patients to outside hospitals, too.
He said Mercy is working to increase medical and surgical space at the Oregon Surgical Center, as well as using a mobile unit in front of the emergency department for triage. Aviva and Umpqua Health are assisting in that effort.
He emphasized people who are severely ill should still seek emergency care and no patients are being turned away. All will be screened and provided care if necessary.
Staffing is tight and Mercy has requested additional staff from the governor’s office.
“Emotionally and physically our staff — our health care family — are exhausted, depleted and weary, but we are continuing to serve our most vulnerable, sick patients who need us now,” Gray said.
“To many, it feels as if we are running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace,” he said.
Gray said the community has been supportive.
“To our community — thank you! Our team sees you and we are so grateful for the donations, prayers and kind thoughts,” he said.
But there’s one more thing you can do, he said.
“If you are able to, please consider getting vaccinated,” Gray said. “We understand that vaccination is a personal decision so please consider talking to your healthcare provider.”
Dannenhoffer urged community members to “get vaccinated as soon as you can.”
The statistics back up Marge Strother’s assertion that it’s largely the unvaccinated who are filling up the hospital. According to the most recent COVID-19 update from the county, 86.4% of hospitalized county residents were unvaccinated.
Dannenhoffer said the risk of infection is 17 times greater for the unvaccinated.
“Other areas of Oregon and in the United States with high vaccination rates are not seeing as big of a surge,” he said.
Other steps to take, he said, include avoiding crowded indoor places, wearing masks when with anyone not in your household and staying home when sick.
Back in March 2020, the CDC named those four highest risk counties based on demographics and socioeconomics. (The other three were Mohave County in Arizona, and Highlands and Marion counties in Florida.)
One reason Douglas County made the list is that more than one-third of the people here are 60 or older. Seniors who contract COVID-19 are more likely to be hospitalized or die than younger patients.
Douglas County also ranks as highly socially vulnerable, a measure based on factors like poverty, housing and transportation.
These are the factors that make it more likely that available hospital space will fill up, Tech Republic said.
But Dannenhoffer’s take on where Douglas County really stands among counties across the country is this:
“Overall, we still have had a relatively low case and death count. But, the delta variant causing the recent case surge is really taxing our health care system, not just in Douglas County, but across the entire state,” he said.