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St. Charles prepares to double no. of patient beds if COVID-19 surge hits

Jordan Williams

Biggest message from 'virtual press conference' remains: Please stay home

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Despite challenges with adequate supplies and other issues, St. Charles Health System is preparing a “surge plan” for potential patients seriously ill with COVID-19 that would enable the system's 270-bed capacity to be doubled, a top official said Tuesday afternoon during an online news conference of local officials.

“We’re working to align staff to support that surge as well,” said Dr. Jeff Absalon, chief physician executive of the four-hospital health system.

Several officials, including St. Charles President and CEO Joe Sluka, Bend Mayor Sally Russell and state Rep. Cheri Held, R-Bend, stressed that Central Oregonians each are the crucial key in social distancing and following other directives to stop or slow the virus spread – that it’s not really up to elected leaders or others to make it happen. It’s in everyone’s hands.

“We all want to look back and say, ‘We did this right. We did everything we could – everything in our power to stop this.'” Mayor Sally Russell told reporters and a livestreamed Facebook audience.

Sluka pleaded with the community for “extensive, aggressive social distancing,” to avoid that worst-case scenario. He said the hospitals still don’t have an adequate supply of tests, but “are actively working to secure more.” For now, tests are limited to those who both show all the symptoms and are part of the vulnerable population – seniors and those with underlying conditions, such as those with compromised immune systems.

“The public must do its part,” Sluka said. “Stay home. You simply cannot transmit or get this disease if you don’t come in contact with it.”

For now, he said, “The growth of this disease is exponential, and hospitals are being overwhelmed. I’m really worried that everything we’re doing will not be enough, without your help.”

Even if the strict social distancing measures succeed, he said, “we are going to face a challenge,” showing several “scary graphs” of what the rise in hospitalizations and related stats will be, if things get bad enough.

Dr. George Conway, director of Deschutes County Health Services, echoed those views: “The COVID-19 outbreak is moving very fast. If we don’t take these steps, hospitals could be overwhelmed, in weeks or months.”

“Hospitals are not the solution. They’re the war zone, now,” said Julianne Repman, Bend-La Pine Schools spokeswoman and manager of the Central Oregon Emergency Information Network’s Joint Information Center. “This is not the flu. There’s no cure. Please, please stay home.”

"I’m really worried that everything we’re doing will not be enough, without your help."


Sluka told reporters the health system is “experiencing a lack of influx of replenishment of our supplies,” which are “gradually dwindling. We go through about 800 masks a day. We have a few weeks’ supply on hand at the present time – based on current usage.”

The St. Charles leader said they are “very appreciative of those in the community offering to donate or make masks. We have a team working on specifications on how people can construct a mask. I would say masks will be our biggest challenge,” as well as gowns, gloves and other supplies.

But the first shipments from a national stockpile arrived Tuesday, he said – 87,000 procedural masks, 9,000 gowns and 14,000 pairs of gloves, 25 percent of the state’s estimated needs.

Still, even if everyone stays home and follow the governor’s orders, “we will be stretched, as far as our capacity is concerned,” Sluka said. “If the projections hold true, and we don’t (do the social distancing), we will be quickly overwhelmed.”

Absalon said the limited supply of tests mean continued “fairly strict guidelines” for testing, at present. “It includes folks with a fever, cough and respiratory symptoms, but who also have other factors that put them at a higher risk, including advanced age, diabetes, heart of long disease and a compromised immune system.”

“We would like to increase our testing,” he said, and with new testing coming online, they hope to have more supplies early next week. But with the analyzers needed to run the tests, “it’s still a bit of an unknown. But as our supplies come in, we look forward to increase the testing of people. Hopefully, we’re a week away, depending on the arrival of supplies.”

At present, the doctor said, the turnaround time for test results is 4-7 days, as they have to this point been sent to the state laboratory in Hillsboro, as well as the University of Washington.

Helt said the state is fortunately “seeing an influx of private testing. That will greatly increase in the next couple of weeks.”

Asked about the restaurant takeout and delivery process, Absalon said while it’s important to support local businesses, “I would encourage people to wash their hands ahead of time and wash their hands afterward. That’s important now with any interaction with people, in any circumstances.”

Asked about the plans for a possible major surge in patients, Absalon said the system currently has 270 beds for ill patients, excluding such areas as the birthing center.

“Our plan with our surge is to potentially double that number,” he said. The most ill patients likely would come to Bend, with less urgent care continuing at hospitals in Redmond, Prineville and Madras.

To free up capacity, they might return to a familiar scene of the past – doubling up patients in rooms, Absalon said, as well as using space not normally used for patient care. “Stopping elective (surgeries) has opened up some space,” he said, such as where those patients are placed before and after their procedures.

Asked who should come to the Emergency Department, Absalon said in general, for symptoms that include fever and “a significant shortness of breath. People who do not have shortness of breath can, in many instances, be taken care of in other locations.” He urged people to contact their primary care physician to determine the most appropriate course of action.

Sluka shared projection models that demonstrate how COVID-19 will increase the need for hospital beds and supplies, how behavior will drive that demand, and how the actions that Central Oregonians take today can save lives and reduce that demand. 

“To say that we are facing unprecedented times is putting it mildly,” said Sluka. “The time to act is right now.”

COEIN’s website, provides a collective resource for up-to-date information. Access to accurate, timely information both locally and nationally is encouraged. Our County Public Health experts point to the Oregon Health Authority and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as good sources of information.

Daily situation updates are available via email at

Central Oregon Emergency Information Network (COEIN), includes Deschutes County Health Services, Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, St. Charles Health System, Crook County Health Department, Crook County Sheriff’s Office, Jefferson County Health Department, Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department, tri-county public schools, City of Bend, Bend Police, Bend Fire & Rescue, and others. COEIN’s purpose is to collect, coordinate and distribute timely and accurate information. 

Article Topic Follows: Coronavirus

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Barney Lerten

Barney is the digital content director for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Barney here.


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