May 1, 2021 — As Lane County reenters “extreme risk” of community spread of COVID-19, PeaceHealth Medical Group is making changes to its operations to continue doing what it can to protect Florence and Siuslaw region community members.
“The numbers are definitely climbing,” said Dr. Heather McArthur, medical director at PeaceHealth Peace Harbor Medical Center. “I’m always careful when I use words like ‘wave,’ but there’s definitely a surge here. Living on the Oregon coast, we see lots of waves. The term ‘king’ wave or tide comes to mind, when we get our floods that block our roads. Just in the last two weeks within our 97439 zip code, we've had 36 cases — and 13 cases just in the past weekend.”
Oregon Health Authority’s COVID-19 dashboard shows that the Florence and Dunes City zip code has confirmed 232 cases of the virus in the area’s 14,343 residents.
“It has definitely hit the coast in in a much harder way than we've seen at any point in the last year,” McArthur said. “It is something that we really want the community to be aware of, and to be vigilant about.”
PeaceHealth has initiated restrictions on visitors, with no visitors allowed, with only a few exceptions. In addition, hospital volunteers will not be permitted on campus.
“This is always a really tough call, as we know how it impacts patients and families,” said PeaceHealth Communications Specialist Anne Williams.
In addition, the medical center also implemented additional safety precautions beyond face masks, eye coverings and other Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
“We have implemented those changes already and are trying to do everything we can to limit the spread that is already hitting our community,” McArthur said.
Williams added, “We did this because of rising community transmission — Lane County Public Health has identified clusters in local church and other social settings, and we also have seen more positive tests at our facilities.”
Peace Harbor tests every patient as they enter the facility. Staff also re-test patients after they have been admitted for five days.
According to McArthur, “Through that process, we've already caught two patients who have become positive for COVID while they've been in the hospital.”
The discovery prompted Peace Harbor to immediately test all 80 of its staff members.
“We were seeing this huge spike in the community — 36 cases over two weeks is quite a wave,” McArthur said. “We saw these outbreaks in churches and gatherings, and obviously most of our caregivers live and work in our community. So, we tested everyone and ended up finding five more cases within our employee population.”
Some of the staff members who tested positive had been vaccinated, and none had serious symptoms, McArthur said.
“Thankfully, everyone's doing fine. And this is the shout out to vaccinating and making sure that we vaccinate,” she said. “Vaccination limits severe symptoms, if nothing else.”
The patients who received a positive COVID-19 diagnosis were moved to PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield.
“We have specialists in infectious disease and intensive care specialists there, and they can get the highest quality of care for COVID-19,” McArthur said. “We're also able to keep them under those special isolation precautions.”
This keeps COVID-positive cases away from other patients who are at risk.
According to Dr. Bob Pelz, medical director of infection prevention for PeaceHealth Oregon, “People can test negative on the way in the hospital, but be incubating it, or they could pick it up from a staff member or from somebody visiting them. Re-testing picks all that up. If we had not tested our patients at five days, then we would have had more transmission within the hospital and we wouldn't have been able to respond to it.”
This surveillance testing has helped PeaceHealth prevent outbreaks and further transmission.
It could also help prevent the spread of the new COVID-19 variants being traced in Oregon. At the moment, Pelz said that Oregon has cases of B.1.1.7 — or the UK variant — as well as the Brazil and South Africa variants. Some of the variants spread infection at a faster rate. However, the current use of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, with Johnson & Johnson again approved by the CDC, will help prevent even these strains of COVID.
“The illness is unlikely to kill people if they've been vaccinated,” Pelz said. “Ninety-nine percent of the people that are getting COVID in Oregon right now are people that have not been vaccinated.”
Peace Harbor was the first Florence-area organization to begin administering vaccinations, with the first taking place on Dec. 23.
“We were able to initially vaccinate about 3,000 members of the community, right up front, that were health care workers or in that vulnerable age group over 80,” McArthur said. “Now, we are partnering with Lane County, which is providing 100 doses of Moderna every week. They provide the appointments for us.”
People can register at www.lanecounty.org/vaxclinics to get vaccines in the Florence area. They can also contact pharmacies at Fred Meyer, Safeway and Bi-Mart.
Peace Harbor is issuing the Moderna vaccine, which requires two shots spaced four weeks apart.
“The beautiful part is that in a bottle of 10 Moderna, there's often one extra dose in each bottle. So, we're able to get a few extra people that we can vaccinate every week,” McArthur said.
The medical center also partners with local pharmacies to help people get an appointment.
If people get vaccinated at Peace Harbor, they will have to enter the building, unlike other Lane County vaccination sites which allow drive-up.
As of April 30, Oregon recorded that 1.25 million people are fully vaccinated, with another 566,276 partially vaccinated. Vaccines may now be given to all people over the age of 16.
“The challenge we're starting to have now,” McArthur noted, “is we have plenty of supply. We need everyone to be willing to get a vaccine.”
People who may have faced long waits a month or two ago should find it easier to access a vaccine.
“If people could just realize that one or two little pokes can really make a huge difference in turning this pandemic around and getting people back to the lives that they want, and not making it a political movement, it will be about being a good neighbor and a good citizen,” McArthur said. “That will bring an end to this so that we can have normalcy again.”
For Pelz, “It just seems so obvious to me that you'd want to get vaccinated, because if I've been vaccinated, I don't have to worry about getting COVID and dying from it. And I don't have to worry as much about getting it and giving it to my patients. For a healthcare worker to choose not to get vaccinated is to choose to put your patients at risk unnecessarily. And that's true with anybody that chooses not to get vaccinated — whether you're taking care of patients who are just circulating in the community or living with somebody else that might get sick from COVID.”
PeaceHealth Oregon is continuing to follow all leadership concerning the novel coronavirus.
Williams said, “We want to emphasize to the community that it’s important not to let down our guard when it comes to masking, physical distancing and avoiding large gatherings.”
For more information, visit www.peacehealth.org.
Editor's Note: This article was updated on Monday, May 3.