News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Sisters Country faces surging delta variant

As the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19 surges across Sisters Country, St. Charles Hospital is urging residents to get vaccinated and, whether vaccinated or not, to wear a mask in public places.

Joe Sluka, president and CEO of St. Charles Health System sent out a Central Oregon-wide message last week urging individual action.

“We already know the best way out of this pandemic, and that’s by vaccinating more people, wearing masks in public places, and practicing good hand hygiene,” he said. “When people get vaccinated, they greatly protect themselves against severe illness and death from COVID-19. When you wear your mask, you slow the spread of the virus, protect others from infection and hospitalization, and reduce strain on our health system. And please believe me: We need to reduce the strain on our health system. Right now.”

The strain is significant enough that the National Guard has been called out in support of the healthcare system.

St. Charles Hospital will receive a deployment of 150 National Guard personnel next Friday.

This is part of a deployment of up to 1,500 Oregon National Guard members in support of frontline healthcare workers as hospitals face a surge of hospitalizations due to the rapid spread of the delta variant. Guard personnel will provide logistical support as materials handlers and equipment runners, as well as assisting with COVID-19 testing and other necessary services to support hospital operations.

“The stress on Oregon hospitals right now is truly unprecedented. Our resources are stretched woefully thin at the same time we are seeing a frightening rise in COVID cases,” said Sluka. “We are grateful for the Guard’s help. We look forward to welcoming its members on our hospital campuses to help see our health system through this public health crisis as we continue to work every possible avenue to secure more clinical resources to care for our patients at the bedside.”

To support care, St. Charles has opened an urgent-care clinic and drive-through COVID testing on their Bend campus.

The urgent-care clinic is in the Bend East Family Care building at 2600 NE Neff Rd.

Drive-through COVID-19 testing is available in the back of the parking lot of the 2600 NE Neff Rd. building. To access drive-through testing, please follow directional signs.

Initial hours of operation for both will be 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily, to be expanded as need arises and resources allow.

The hospital notes that “It is critical that patients who do not need an emergency level of care avoid the emergency department at this time. Community providers are encouraged to send appropriate patients to primary or urgent-care facilities first when at all possible.”

Sluka expressed concern about resistance to mask-wearing and the mandate issued last week by Governor Kate Brown, reinstating a requirement to mask up in indoor spaces.

“Unfortunately, I think we can expect compliance with Governor Brown’s mask mandate to be significantly lower this time around, for many reasons: People are tired of wearing them, they believe the danger has passed, they’ve dug in their heels in opposition,” Sluka said. “Some people may simply be confused, or they may believe that if they’re vaccinated there is no need to wear a mask. Today, I want to urge each and every person reading this to wear a mask in indoor public spaces and in crowded outdoor spaces. In fact, I would say it’s never been more important to wear your mask during this pandemic than it is right now.”

Mask mandates have become a flashpoint of social conflict, with vocal opposition expressed at school board meetings across Central Oregon — including Sisters — to a K-12 mask mandate for fall.

Sluka emphasized that the matter is not political for him.

“The delta variant of COVID-19 is highly transmissible and it is endangering thousands of unvaccinated Central Oregonians – including children who aren’t yet eligible for a shot. To protect them, it is absolutely vital that we get people vaccinated, and that all of us wear masks,” he said. “I have no political agenda here. I am not trying to curb your freedoms or control your life in any way. I am simply trying to keep people from getting very sick, from dying, and from needing care in our hospitals, which are already in crisis.”

In recent weeks St. Charles has canceled surgeries to make room for COVID patients and others who are ill.

Earlier this month, Dr. Jeff Absalon, St. Charles’ chief physician officer, noted that the hospital is facing a “cascading effect” that involves factors other than COVID-19, including: people facing the consequences of deferred preventative care; more injuries in a growing, active population; staff shortages due to retirements and burnout; and strains on the broader healthcare “ecosystem.”


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