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'We've never seen anything like this': Oregon hospitals bring in temporary morgues as COVID-19 surge continues

Several hospitals have brought in temporary morgue trucks as hospital morgues fill up and funeral homes struggle to keep up.
Credit: Providence
Providence Portland Medical Center.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Hospitals around Oregon are securing extra space for bodies as a surge of COVID-19 deaths overwhelm hospital morgues and funeral homes struggle to keep up with demand. 

Providence Portland and Providence St. Vincent hospitals are bringing in fatality management trucks, or temporary morgues. Providence said those are the only two hospitals where it has needed to install the temporary morgues. 

Salem Health has also signed a contract for a temporary morgue in case it's needed if deaths continue to rise. Tillamook and Josephine Counties have separately requested refrigerated morgue trucks. Klamath County loaned its truck to Tillamook County, which only has one funeral home.

"We've never seen anything like this," said Salem Health CEO Cheryl Nester Wolf in testimony to the Salem Chamber of Commerce on Thursday. "We didn't see this at beginning of the pandemic. The delta variant is a horse of a different color than where we started."

Modeling from Oregon Health & Science University expects Oregon to hit the peak of the surge next week. On Friday, Sept. 3, there were 1,172 people hospitalized with COVID-19, an all-time high. 

Credit: Providence
A temporary morgue truck delivered to Providence Portland Medical Center. Providence St. Vincent will receive one early next week.

"We are completely full. We're canceling surgeries, and we're not canceling surgeries that aren't necessary, we're canceling surgeries because we can't accommodate an ICU bed for the patient," Wolfe said.

RELATED: Oregon has the fewest hospital beds per capita in the country

Wolfe said in the last two weeks, Salem Health has tested more than 1,000 people who showed up to the emergency room — and 30% were positive for COVID-19. 

"The reality is, we're losing the battle," she said. 

More Oregon National Guard members will begin working at hospitals around the state to assist with things like greeting and screening patients, transporting patients, delivering supplies and assisting health care workers.

Providence Portland, St. Vincent, Newberg, Milwaukie, Willamette Falls and Seaside hospitals will get dozens of new service members this weekend. Salem Health will also see 160 Oregon National Guard members arrive next week. 

Facing a shortage of health care workers — a problem plaguing hospitals nationwide — Providence has announced sign-on bonuses and bonuses for current employees, as well as $1,000-minimum referral bonuses for current employees who help bring in new talent. 

Wolfe said Salem Health has hired 150 additional nursing staff over the last month. 

"I'm talking to you as a nurse today. This is devastating. I don't know how long we can keep this up, to be honest with you," said Wolfe.    

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