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St. Charles seeks 5,000 initial COVID-19 vaccine doses, 2nd ultra-cold freezer

COVID 19 Absalon vaccine
Dr. Jeff Absalon, St. Charles chief physician executive, spoke to reporters Thursday at weekly COVID-19 briefing

Deschutes County health, govt. officials offer wide-ranging update

BEND, Ore.  (KTVZ) – St. Charles Health System has requested an initial 5,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine but cannot require that caregivers be vaccinated, an official said Thursday, also noting that caregivers who don't show symptoms are not routinely tested for the virus.

“We do not yet know how many doses of the vaccine we’re going to get,” Dr. Jeffrey Absalon, St. Charles' chief physician executive, said during a wide-ranging, weekly COVID-19 briefing of reporters by local elected and health officials.

“We did request 5,000 doses from the initial allotment,” Absalon said. “At this point, we are still not expecting a supply until (the shipment scheduled for) Dec. 22. We expect to know more in the next 24 hours.”

Since each person must receive two doses, the 5,000 vaccines would be enough for 2,500 people.

The Pfizer vaccine is the one that's expected, and due to its requirements, he said the hospital is looking to acquire a second ultra-cold freezer, with the ability to store up to 10,000 doses.

Hospital teams, meanwhile, are working on prioritization and determining how many caregivers will receive vaccines.

As for the system's more than 4,300 caregivers, Absalon said, “We do not and cannot require them to be vaccinated. We can require them to either be vaccinated or fill out a declination” form, thus declining to receive it, "and that's our plan right now."

“Caregivers at St. Charles that have symptoms or have been exposed to the virus are eligible for testing, but we are not doing routine testing for workers in general,” Absalon said, with an exception being those who have entered long-term care facilities.

“There’s a lot of reasons for that,” he said. “The way we protect health care workers and protect against the virus is to do all the things you are already aware of,” such as frequent hand-washing, masks and physical distancing.

Absalon said the hospital also has “identified some risk of transmission in break rooms” and has encouraged physical distancing in those locations, “but the testing of asymptomatic people is something not recommended by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) in hospital environments.”

The St. Charles official said they have had “well over 800" caregiver testss since the pandemic began, and 85 have tested positive for COVID-19.

As of Thursday morning, St. Charles reported 39 COVID-19 patients (10 fewer earlier in the week), five of whom were in the ICU, four on a ventilator.

“Meeting escalating staff needs has been a challenge,” Absalon said, with impacts from earned time off as well as those on furlough because they are symptomatic with COVID-19, had potential exposure or recently traveled.

To deal with the staffing and capacity issues, the organization has been canceling elective surgeries and moving some non-COVID-19 patients to Madras, Redmond or Prineville.

In addition, he said, St. Charles has been securing the assistance of traveling nurses, when available, and retraining St. Charles nurses and clinical staff from the procedural and operating room areas to support inpatient care needs, partnered with the regular workers in those areas.

Dr. George Conway, director of Deschutes County Health Services, said the county of late has been averaging about 60 COVID-19 cases a day. He noted that last week, 16 of the county’s cases were among children ages 9 and under.

Despite challenging “supply chain problems,” Conway said, the county is still ramping up testing, approaching 6,000 weekly, with most interest in the rapid-results test.

Asked about the relatively low death rate, Conway said among the factors is that the age range of cases has changed over the course of the pandemic.

Early on, he said, they largely involved returning international travelers and their households, typically much older, in the 60s, 70s and 70s. The second large wave of cases was primarily at long-term care facilities, typically the elderly with chronic health conditions.

The third wave involves many more cases among younger people, who are less likely to have chronic illnesses.

But the recent marked increase in hospitalizations means there’s “a substantial chance we will see additional deaths as a result,”  Conway said.

Asked about the small but vocal businesses refusing to follow COVID-19 guidelines, Redmond City Manager Keith Witcosky said while “officers go out and pay a friendly visit,” enforcement is “ultimately going to come down to OSHA. If they are going to issue fines, that is their prerogative.”

Bend City Manager Eric King said the city is ramping up staffing for code enforcement and looking to hire required police officers. As for the recent city council decision that businesses could face a fine of up to $750 per violation, King said, “It is happening. It just takes time to work through the process” with partners, including county health officials, OSHA and the OLCC.

Asked about the recent drop in local and state cases from record levels, Conway said not to read too much into it, as "wastewater signal" tests indicate there could be substantially more cases than are being found through testing, which has been primarily of those who are symptomatic or were exposed to those who have tested positive.

But Conway said it could be late spring or early summer before normal activities can resume, and in the meantime, people need to take care of their loved ones and household members by building on the current knowledge of how to control the virus and lessen the risk of spread.

“It’s going to be a rough winter,” he said. “It could be a dark winter. Focus on caring for each other and being kind to everybody. There aren’t many people who aren’t suffering from this tragedy” and its impacts.

Article Topic Follows: Coronavirus

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Barney Lerten

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