After seven dangerous and frightening months dealing with the highly infectious coronavirus, Oregon hospitals and healthcare workers are now facing a different hazard — the thick layer of choking smoke blanketing the state.
From Portland to Medford, hospitals and health systems have closed facilities, moved patients and delayed procedures due to the smoke. Despite efforts to preserve air quality, hospital officials admit that some of their sites are visibly smoky.
“All of our facilities have smoke inside the buildings,” said Brian Terrett, spokesman for Legacy Health, which owns and operates Legacy Emanuel and Legacy Good Samaritan hospitals in Portland and several others.
Legacy moved patients out of its Silverton hospital last week when much of the area was under Level 3 evacuation orders. It has since reopened and is fully operational, Terrett said.
Legacy’s seven urgent care clinics, including facilities in Woodburn and Silverton, remain closed.
Nurses at Kaiser Permanente’s Sunnyside campus in Southeast Portland demanded meetings with management to address the air quality problems.
“This is a very serious issue for patients and nurses,” said Rachel Gumpert, an official with the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals. “Management didn’t feel the urgency. Of course, many managers are working from home. They’re not on site.”
One Kaiser employee claimed on Facebook that the health system was conducting day surgeries at its Skyline facility in Salem despite smoke and ash visible in the operating room.
Kaiser spokeswoman Debbie Karmen said in a statement that the air inside Kaiser buildings was far better than the outside air and was always within acceptable levels.
“Currently at Sunnyside Medical Center, for example, we are performing 90% above outdoor air levels, with an AQI (air quality index) of 100 or less,” she wrote. “We have directed patient care away from the most impacted areas.”
Oregon has suffered some of the worst air quality numbers in the world since last week’s fires burned a million acres. Portland set a new record on Sept. 13 of 477 AQI, more than triple the previous historic high. Bend’s rating hit 500 on Saturday, a number that is literally off the AQI charts.
Portland’s AQI typically is at 50 or below; the Environmental Protection Agency classifies any rating above 150 as “unhealthy.”
Numbers that high have serious health implications. The potential impacts have grown more serious as the very nature of wildfire pollution has changed. Large forest fires are increasingly expanding into populated areas, which means the smoke contains a brew of new and different chemicals and heavy metals, said Michelle Rosales, an expert in environmental health and industrial hygiene who specializes in wildfires.
The deadly 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California marked a new era in western wildfires, she said. The blaze traveled from wild lands to the small town of Paradise, killing 85 people and sending a toxic brew of new chemicals into the giant plume of smoke.
“As wildfires hit neighborhoods, metals, plastics and chemicals that are more toxic” are incorporated into the smoke, said Rosales, who works for Forensic Analytical Consulting Services, a Bay Area firm.
Oregon workplace safety laws do not address wildfire smoke. California adopted a new standard in 2018 that requires employers to provide workers with N-95 respirators and make workplace modifications if wildfire sends the local AQI higher than 150.
State health officials said this week that 10% of recent emergency room visits across Oregon have been for asthma-like symptoms.
Oregon Health & Science University said it has experienced few air quality issues but has “seen a slight increase in patients experiencing breathing difficulties,
Providence officials also reported an increase of emergency room visits at the majority of its hospitals, particularly at its facility in Medford.
The terrible air quality capped a devastating week for some heathcare workers.
Eighty employees of Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford lost their homes when the Almeda fire roared through the small Jackson County towns of Talent and Phoenix.
More than 700 employees at Providence were evacuated as wildfire neared and 30 had their homes burn. At PeaceHealth’s two Eugene-area hospitals, 160 workers were evacuated and, as of this point, the non-profit knows of 15 employees whose homes burned.
Hospitals and other operators of public buildings can take several steps to maintain interior air quality, Rosales said. They should limit the number of entrances and exits. If practical, they should stop inducting outside air into the ventilation system. Ventilation in general can be counterproductive as it can lift harmful particles that have settled to the ground and put them back into air.
Providence officials said its hospitals already have filters in place that clean the air and that air quality has always been within acceptable levels.
“With hundreds of people coming in and out of the doors each day, smoky air does get inside the hospital,” spokeswoman Lisa Helderop said. “But we have filters made for hospitals that are efficient at cleaning the air and keeping particulate levels low.”
As the Riverside Fire made its way down the Clackamas River and toward cities and towns, Providence moved some patients from its Willamette Falls hospital in Oregon City to other Providence hospitals. It also moved most residents out of the Providence Benedictine skilled nursing and assisted living facility in Mt. Angel to facilities farther from the fire.
Salem Hospital and PeaceHealth’s hospitals in Springfield, Eugene and Cottage Grove have all been hard hit, both by the fires and smoke.
PeaceHealth has installed additional air scrubbers to augment the existing HVAC system, spokesman Jeremy Rush said. It is also restricting the number of entrances and exits.
PeaceHealth made 80 hotel rooms available to displaced employees. It opened its parking lots to employees living in their RVs and also made its patient family guest house open to employees in need of temporary housing.