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Life flight is on life support

Medford-based Mercy Flights is struggling to keep up with requests to fly local patients to open hospital beds in the West during the COVID-19 surge. Mercy Flights photo
Mercy Flights can’t keep up with requests for transport during COVID-19 surge

Medford-based Mercy Flights can’t keep up with a spike in requests to fly local patients to open hospital beds in the West during the current COVID-19 surge.

Overloaded with patients, hospitals in Jackson and Josephine counties have been searching for open beds in Oregon, Washington, California, Nevada and Idaho.

"It is literally anywhere that a physician can find an open bed and a doctor to accept these patients, they're doing it. When that happens, we will fly them wherever we need to fly them on the West Coast," said Mercy Flights Chief Executive Officer Sheila Clough.

But all those flights tie up pilots, planes and medical workers who care for patients in the air.

"There have been times when we haven't been able to accommodate the transport because we were on another transport and didn't have additional pilots and staff and aircraft available,“ Clough said. ”That's heartbreaking. We want to be here for every single request. But there are literally so many requests that we can't handle them all.“

When that happens, Mercy Flights refers a local hospital to other medical air transport services in the region. But other life flight services can’t always help, Clough said.

“Those air transport companies are just as overwhelmed as we are at this point," she said.

The Rogue Valley has experienced a surge in COVID-19 patients in July, August and September. Mercy Flights is transporting 30% more COVID-19 patients than it did before, Clough said.

She said most of the COVID-19 patients Mercy Flights has transported have been on ventilators and need a high level of care en route. Mercy Flights aircraft are outfitted like miniature intensive care units.

"Most of our COVID patients are ones who are intubated. Our flight nurses and flight paramedics are managing the intubation, the medications and the patient's vitals and medical care throughout that transport," Clough said.

The total volume of requests for transport of all types of patients is up by 25%, she said.

"We've been in the valley for 70-plus years, and the number of flights we are doing in July, August and moving into September is the highest record number in the history of the organization," Clough said.

Mercy Flights was founded in 1949 by George Milligan, an air traffic controller in Medford, after a friend died of polio in Southern Oregon — unable to survive the long, slow ground transport to Portland.

A nonprofit organization, Mercy Flights added ground ambulance service in 1992 to its life flight service.

Mercy Flights usually flies patients who need advanced medical care to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, or to hospitals in Eugene or Redding, California, Clough said.

When those hospitals started filling up, local doctors started finding hospital beds farther afield, including Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Reno and the state of Idaho, she said.

Now some of those options are disappearing.

Reno, Nevada is in the midst of a COVID-19 surge, with five times more daily cases compared to six weeks ago, the Associated Press reported.

On Thursday, Idaho activated its crisis standards of care after a surge of COVID-19 patients exhausted health care resources in that state. The standards allow hospitals to ration ventilators, for example, and use the equipment on healthier people who are more likely to recover, according to the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare.

"They are now at a crisis level and so their hospital beds are very few and far between," Clough said.

Idaho’s medical crisis is putting strain on other states like Washington as Idaho residents cross borders to seek care, according to news reports.

Clough said as the number of open hospital beds drops in other states, Rogue Valley doctors are having patients transported to hospitals in smaller Oregon communities that aren’t traditional hubs for medical care.

Mercy Flights has transported patients to smaller hospitals in places like Corvallis and Gresham, she said.

Sometimes a doctor will get lucky and find an open bed at OHSU, and Mercy Flights will fly a patient there, she said.

Clough said Mercy Flights is still able to fly out to rescue people facing medical emergencies in the region, including car crashes. Mercy Flights uses a helicopter for those rescues, while generally using its planes to fly a patient from a local hospital to one out of the area.

Clough said the public can help overloaded medical providers by getting vaccinated, wearing masks and social distancing.

"We're in this all together, and we hope that working together we can get past this pandemic," she said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.