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Local health worker helps with California COVID surge

A worker from Providence Medford Medical Center is seeing first-hand the overwhelming impact of the nation’s COVID-19 surge on southern California hospitals.

Some patients are lying in stretchers head-to-toe, others are standing and more are lined up in wheelchairs. They’ve flowed out of patient rooms and into hallways, said Ryan Hutchinson, director of diagnostic imaging at Providence Medford Medical Center.

“It’s a true pandemic disaster situation. The demand exceeds the capacity to provide care,” he said.

On Jan. 3, Hutchinson flew down to Apple Valley, California east of Los Angeles to help at the Providence St. Mary’s Medical Center. The 212-bed hospital filled with 285 patients, more than half of whom are COVID-19 positive, according to Providence.

Hutchinson said people in the Providence health care system work together like a family, so he decided to go to California when he heard about the need there.

“It just clicked. It seemed like the right thing to do,” he said.

Other workers from Providence hospitals and clinics in Oregon have also traveled to California to help.

In the Rogue Valley, Hutchinson has served as incident commander for the Providence Medford Medical Center’s COVID-19 and wildfire incident command center.

The scenario at the Providence hospital in Apple Valley is the worst he’s ever seen.

It’s worse than a simulated but realistically staged Federal Emergency Management Agency disaster preparedness training event he previously attended at a U.S. Army base.

“That was scary enough. This exceeds that,” Hutchinson.

Putting in 12-hour days, he’s helping in whatever way he’s needed in California. Sometimes that means moving patients who need to go in for imaging, then disinfecting the imaging tables. He’s also unloading box after box of personal protective equipment and supplies, piling them in carts and wheeling the vital items to the units where they’re needed.

As hard as Hutchinson has been working, he said the strain on nurses is worse. They’re putting in 16-hour shifts day after day.

While helping out anywhere he’s needed, he’s also learning more about how a hospital responds during a disaster.

“It really is about communication and thinking outside the box about the strategy to manage patients,” Hutchinson said.

One of the most helpful improvements would be a centralized system that could track staff and supplies, plus serve as a hub where staff could put in requests for the people and equipment they need, he said.

Hutchinson said hospitals within states and across state lines should communicate even more among themselves to send resources where they’re most needed.

So far, Jackson and Josephine hospitals haven’t been overrun with COVID-19 patients, although they are pushing close to their capacity.

On Saturday, 49 adult intensive care unit beds were full and eight were available in the two counties. Patients were filling 379 non-ICU beds and 66 were available.

It’s far different at the Providence hospital in Apple Valley, which has set up tents outside to shelter the overload of patients.

Hospital workers are juggling multiple code blue alerts at once. A code blue alert means a patient’s life is in danger.

Hutchinson said people are suffering heart attacks and strokes even outside in the tents.

With hospitals overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, the Los Angeles Emergency Medical Services Agency has instructed emergency medical technicians to stop bringing patients to hospitals if they have little chance of surviving. EMTs have been instructed to emphasize treating stroke and heart attack victims in the field, the Associated Press reported.

Some hospitals are having trouble meeting the demand for supplemental oxygen, AP said.

The COVID-19 vaccine rollout has begun across the nation. In the meantime, Hutchinson urged people to continue wearing masks, keeping their distance from others and washing their hands.

Just days before he left for California, he received the first of two COVID-19 vaccinations he’ll need for his body to eventually gain immunity against the virus.

Hutchinson said he wasn’t sure he wanted to get a vaccine that is still so new.

“But it’s about protecting not just yourself, but the people around you. I asked myself did I want to take something that is brand new? But I thought about my family and my parents. They’re in their 70s. As a health care worker, I have a responsibility to get vaccinated,” he said.

Hutchinson urged people to get vaccinated when the vaccine becomes available to the wider public.

“Be accountable. Be responsible,” he said.

Oregon’s tiered vaccination approach is bringing the vaccine first to health care workers, first responders, nursing home residents and staff and others involved in health care. The second wave of vaccinations if for essential workers like teachers, followed by a third wave for people over age 65 and those with medical conditions.

The rest of the population follows.

With his last work day in California on Saturday, Hutchinson plans to travel home and jump back to work with his colleagues in Medford on Monday.

“There is no break,” he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Providence Medford Medical Center Director of Diagnostic Imaging Ryan Hutchinson helps move boxes of supplies at a California hospital overrun with COVID-19 patients. Photo courtesy of Providence.