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‘Delta has changed everything’: Oregon governor to deploy 1,500 National Guard troops to assist swamped hospitals

“To support our hospitals overstretched by patients during the Delta surge, I’m deploying 500 Oregon National Guard members, initially, to hospitals across the state,” Brown announced on Friday, adding that, eventually, “Up to 1,500 Guard members will be available to support our hospital workers as needed.”

The first 500 troops will be deployed on August 20 and will assist the St. Charles, Mercy, Asante and Providence hospital networks, while more are set to follow in the coming weeks, a spokesperson for Brown told local media. In addition to helping to administer coronavirus tests, the Guard will provide “materials handlers and equipment runners” to support hospital operations and logistics. 

While the governor said that more than 2.5 million Oregon residents have been vaccinated against the virus, more than half of its population, she added “the harsh and frustrating reality is that the Delta variant has changed everything,” insisting “we must take action” against the more contagious mutation.

The state will also request “support and funding” from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Brown said, but offered few details about how those funds might be used.

The decision comes as Oregon sees a significant spike in coronavirus infections and hospitalizations. As of Friday, 743 Covid-positive patients are in Oregon’s hospitals, 185 of them in intensive care and 89 currently on ventilators, according to health department data. That leaves only 71 ICU beds free across the whole state.

Using some of the most recent data available, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation published in 2018 found that Oregon had among the lowest ICU space per capita in the US, with only about 1.6 beds per 1,000 residents. While that usually means the state avoids a large excess ICU capacity, allowing it to make efficient use of its beds, Becky Hultberg of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems noted “that’s a good thing until you’re in a pandemic,” when ICU space is quickly filled by seriously ill patients.

On Wednesday, Brown reimposed a statewide indoor mask mandate, including for the fully vaccinated, arguing that “the latest science is clear that both vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals are able to spread the Delta variant.” That move mirrored a similar guidance issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last month, which advised universal face coverings in areas of high viral transmission regardless of vaccination status, prompting a spate of revived mandates across the US.

Oregon is far from the only state to mobilize National Guard forces to assist with the Covid-19 response, with governors across the US making similar use of their troops since the early days of the pandemic. Earlier this month, Guard soldiers in Virginia wrapped up operations after a 460-day deployment to assist with vaccinations, testing and hospital logistics, similar to moves made in California, New York and a number of other states last year.

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