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17 months ago, CDC named Douglas County one of four highest COVID-19 risks in the nation. Were they right?

On Friday, James Strother’s fever began to climb.

Marge Strother knew her husband had a history of sepsis and septic shock — life-threatening incidents related to his ongoing need to wear a catheter.

A home health nurse said they needed to call 911. But when the emergency responders arrived, they said they had just dropped someone off at the hospital and had to leave him in the waiting room due to a shortage of space at CHI Mercy Medical Center.

James Strother did not have COVID-19, but the hospital was filled to capacity with people who did.

He couldn’t sit up or stand, so Marge Strother decided to wait and monitor his temperature. A few hours later it had climbed to 103.5 degrees.

Marge Strother called back and her husband was taken to the hospital.

“They had one room left in the ER and they put him in there,” she said. “Septic shock can kill you and sepsis can kill you and he needed to go into the ICU or PCU but there were no beds because they were taken up by the COVID people.”

Around 3:30 a.m., the hospital called to say they’d found a bed for James Strother on the surgical floor.

He never did get an ICU bed, Marge Strother said, but he was treated successfully and by Monday he returned home.

But Marge Strother is still angry.

She has no complaint with the hospital staff, who she said did the best they could.

She’s angry at the people who didn’t get vaccinated and who make up the bulk of those hospitalized with COVID-19.

“I was livid that my husband’s life was put at risk because people were too ignorant to look at the science or too political,” said Marge Strother, who describes herself as a highly conservative person but one who worked for 35 years in the pharmaceutical industry.

“Now I’d vote for Trump tomorrow. It’s not political with me, it’s science,” she said.

Back in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic was in its early stages here in Douglas County, The News-Review reported on an alarming prediction from Tech Republic, an online magazine owned by CBS.

Tech Republic reported the Centers for Disease Control had identified four counties across the country with the highest risk of having more COVID-19 cases than their hospitals could handle. Douglas County, it said, was one of them.

Tech Republic couldn’t predict the rise of the delta variant, which is much more contagious than the original strain that first reared its ugly head in Douglas County in March 2020.

It couldn’t account for the vaccines now widely available either, nor for the significant percentage of county residents who would remain unvaccinated.

But did Tech Republic get it right? How bad is the situation at Douglas County’s main hospital?

“We are running at or near capacity depending on the hospital unit, as we have been for the last few weeks,” said Mercy Chief Medical Officer Jason Gray.

Gray said as of Thursday, 72 of the 114 patients at Mercy — more than 60% — were COVID-19 patients.

Douglas County Public Health Officer Bob Dannenhoffer said that’s not likely to improve in the near future.

“We predict that the need for hospitalizations will increase for at least the next few weeks,” he said.

Some surgeries have had to be postponed and tragically, last week Mercy announced that a patient had died while being treated in the emergency room but waiting for an ICU bed.

Gray said as the surge spreads throughout the state, it will become increasingly difficult, maybe impossible, to transfer patients to outside hospitals, too.

He said Mercy is working to increase medical and surgical space at the Oregon Surgical Center, as well as using a mobile unit in front of the emergency department for triage. Aviva and Umpqua Health are assisting in that effort.

He emphasized people who are severely ill should still seek emergency care and no patients are being turned away. All will be screened and provided care if necessary.

Staffing is tight and Mercy has requested additional staff from the governor’s office.

Morale is suffering too.

“Emotionally and physically our staff — our health care family — are exhausted, depleted and weary, but we are continuing to serve our most vulnerable, sick patients who need us now,” Gray said.

“To many, it feels as if we are running a marathon at a sprinter’s pace,” he said.

Gray said the community has been supportive.

“To our community — thank you! Our team sees you and we are so grateful for the donations, prayers and kind thoughts,” he said.

But there’s one more thing you can do, he said.

“If you are able to, please consider getting vaccinated,” Gray said. “We understand that vaccination is a personal decision so please consider talking to your healthcare provider.”

Dannenhoffer urged community members to “get vaccinated as soon as you can.”

The statistics back up Marge Strother’s assertion that it’s largely the unvaccinated who are filling up the hospital. According to the most recent COVID-19 update from the county, 86.4% of hospitalized county residents were unvaccinated.

Dannenhoffer said the risk of infection is 17 times greater for the unvaccinated.

“Other areas of Oregon and in the United States with high vaccination rates are not seeing as big of a surge,” he said.

Other steps to take, he said, include avoiding crowded indoor places, wearing masks when with anyone not in your household and staying home when sick.

Back in March 2020, the CDC named those four highest risk counties based on demographics and socioeconomics. (The other three were Mohave County in Arizona, and Highlands and Marion counties in Florida.)

One reason Douglas County made the list is that more than one-third of the people here are 60 or older. Seniors who contract COVID-19 are more likely to be hospitalized or die than younger patients.

Douglas County also ranks as highly socially vulnerable, a measure based on factors like poverty, housing and transportation.

These are the factors that make it more likely that available hospital space will fill up, Tech Republic said.

But Dannenhoffer’s take on where Douglas County really stands among counties across the country is this:

“Overall, we still have had a relatively low case and death count. But, the delta variant causing the recent case surge is really taxing our health care system, not just in Douglas County, but across the entire state,” he said.

Roseburg Walmart closed 'for additional cleaning, sanitizing and stocking'

The Walmart in Roseburg is closed for a couple of days to allow crews to come in and clean the store.

The store, located at 2125 NW Stewart Parkway, closed at 2 p.m. Thursday to begin the cleaning. The store will remain closed through Friday and reopen Saturday at 6 a.m. The all-day closure Friday will allow Walmart staff time to re-stock the shelves, said Tyler Thomason, senior manager for corporate communications at Walmart, in a news release.

Much of Walmart’s parking lot was empty Thursday evening. Employees stood at both entrances, informing customers that the store was closed until Saturday morning.

“Walmart’s place within the community is considered essential, and we understand the role we play in providing customers with food, medicine and other needed items during this time,” Thomason said in the release.

“Everything we’re doing is for the well-being of our associates and the thousands of customers we serve daily, and in consideration of guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and health experts,” he said. “Given the rise in positive cases through the delta variant, we will follow CDC guidance, which includes fully vaccinated people wearing masks in public indoor settings in counties with substantial or high transmission.”

Thomason also said in counties that have state or local mask mandates, Walmart employees will be required to wear masks inside the facilities, including stores, clubs, distribution centers and fulfillment centers. Oregon has a mask mandate that goes into effect Friday.

When Walmart reopens Saturday, management will continue conducting associate health assessments, and all unvaccinated workers must still wear face coverings, Thomason said.

“In addition to offering COVID-19 vaccines to customers through walk-in or online appointments, we’re also offering easy access to vaccines for associates,” he said. “Associates can receive their vaccinations at their home store pharmacy, on or off the clock.”

Walmart workers who get the vaccine will receive a $150 bonus from the company, and three days paid leave if they experience side effects from the shot. Employees that choose to get their vaccinations elsewhere will be given two hours of paid leave, Thomason said.

“These protocols and convenient access to vaccinations are in addition to the extensive measures we’ve put in place during the pandemic to help protect our associates and customers,” Thomason said. “We will continue working closely with elected and local health officials, adjusting how we serve the community while also keeping the health and safety of our customers and associates in mind.”

Dealing with delta: Public defenders struggle through outbreak

Erik Swallow is tired.

Not because of the hours he spends as the interim director of the Umpqua Valley Public Defenders office. What’s making Swallow tired is a breakthrough case of the COVID-19 delta variant which spread through the downtown Roseburg office.

“Being tired is a pain in the ass,” said Swallow, who has been dealing with the effects of the delta variant for more than three weeks. “I’m used to working a long day and having energy when I get home. I’m a late night person. I definitely need more sleep than I usually do.

“Fatigue is a real thing.”

Swallow agreed to share his experience with The News-Review after 12 of the 30 people who work at the public defenders office tested positive for COVID-19. All 30 employees had long since completed their sequence of vaccinations against the virus.

“All but one of us had symptoms,” Swallow said in early August, when the public defenders office was added to the Oregon Health Authority’s Workplace Outbreak Report. “We mandated vaccines. We are a public entity dealing with the public and high risk members of the public.

“We allowed for medical and religious exceptions, and nobody took them.”

Of the positive cases in the office, nine attorneys who had been vaccinated contracted COVID-19, and all nine were sequenced to the B.1.1.7 delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

One week earlier, a similar outbreak was reported at the Douglas County Jail. The jail currently has 19 active COVID-19 positive cases including employees, inmates and family members.

Swallow recounted his experience in dealing with the delta variant as hitting him fast and hard.

“Our first person to get sick was (Aug. 4), but by (Aug. 5) it was all of our staff,” Swallow said three weeks ago. “I had tested negative but started feeling ill. By that Saturday, I had all the symptoms.

“When you get this thing, you’re just sleeping,” Swallow said, punctuated by a heavy guttural cough. “For the first 24 hours I had it, I slept for probably 21 hours. Nobody (from the public defenders office) ended up in the hospital, but oh man, it knocks you down.”

Due to the outbreak, the attorneys in the public defenders office and Douglas County District Attorney’s Office got creative. Ever since the outbreak at the public defenders office was reported, clients have been represented by their defense attorneys in court proceedings either via telephone or closed circuit video.

“The court was very flexible in short order to allow us to do remote appearances,” Swallow said.

Three weeks after getting hit with delta, Swallow said he’s still recovering. The cough remains, although not as pronounced. He has all the energy of a house cat lying in the sun on a window sill.

“I definitely don’t feel 100%,” Swallow said.

So why share his experience of his breakthrough case of COVID-19?

“I felt like I had an obligation to be candid about this,” Swallow said. “It’s important to share this.

“All of us were just relaxing like, ‘Oh yea, everything’s better!’ and this is where we landed.”