Canby Fire: Overcrowded Hospitals Complicating Local Emergency Response

The Canby fire chief is sounding the alarm about an extreme shortage in hospital capacity and staffing for the local and regional health care systems — which is hampering his agency’s ability to provide emergency medical service and save lives amid a delta-fueled resurgence of Covid-19.

Chief Jim Davis told the Canby City Council Wednesday that local hospitals were already strained due to workforce shortages — particularly for nursing staff — and hospitals’ failure to expand emergency room and intensive care capacity to keep pace with population growth in recent years.

But with nearly 1,200 Oregonians hospitalized for Covid-19 — 309 of them in intensive care — that same underprepared hospital system has been pushed to the brink of collapse.

It’s something Canby firefighter/EMTs — and even Davis himself — are seeing firsthand every day.

“I personally transported a patient from a car accident to the emergency department and had to wait 50 minutes with the patient in the foyer,” Davis said. “The person who suffers is the patient.”

With intensive care units overloaded, hospitals are faced with the prospect of placing seriously ill Covid patients in the emergency department — which means even fewer available beds for ambulances.

“Firefighters respond out, and when they get there in an emergency they’re told the hospital is on ‘divert,’ which means the hospital is full,” Davis said. “It cannot take patients.”

Patients are then routed to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland, which — since it is also overloaded (Davis said Wednesday that its ICU was at 106% capacity) — routinely redirects them to local hospitals in smaller communities.

These facilities may be full themselves or not staffed or equipped to handle a seriously ill or wounded patient.

“The ICUs are filled up, and they’re running out of staff,” Davis said. “They’re running out of ventilators. And Covid patients will have to eventually take beds in the emergency rooms. That means that there will be much longer waits for day-to-day emergencies and serious emergencies.”

Davis, reading from a prepared statement he said he’d drafted in response to district residents who asked him to share his stance on the vaccine, encouraged people to get vaccinated to protect themselves, their loved ones and their community from the highly contagious delta variant.

“All we ask is please do the research on the vaccine,” said Davis, who served in the United States Air Force. “As a veteran, I do respect the right to decide for themselves. This can be a problem that all of us in Canby and in the area can unite on to figure out. But we must figure this out because the hospitals are full.”

Davis and then-Police Chief Bret Smith were the first people in Canby known to have received the Moderna Covid vaccine in early January shortly after it was made available to first responders.

The chiefs received their shots at district headquarters along with close to 50 Canby Fire and police personnel.

“Two weeks from my second vaccine, it was a relief to me and my family, so that we could respond out and feel like we had some protection against the coronavirus,” Davis said Wednesday.

Joshua Williams, chief of the neighboring Aurora Fire District, announced his opposition to the statewide mandate requiring EMTs to get vaccinated — and said the Board of Directors for the district must support his stance or terminate him.

Davis on Wednesday said simply that Canby Fire would abide by the mandate — and held firm when one councilor appeared to press him on the issue.

“I wanted to clarify because you said that you respect an individual’s right to choose — you would encourage them to do their research — but then also, you’ll be following the governor’s mandate,” Councilor Jordan Tibbals said. “So for the personnel at the fire department, are you respecting their right to choose?”

Davis responded, “The governor’s order requires to either get the vaccine or do an exemption for religious beliefs or a medical exemption.”

“OK, so you’re honoring the exemptions if a firefighter needs to go that route?” Tibbals asked.

“Correct,” Davis said. “And that’s by the law.”

Councilor Sarah Spoon thanked Davis for his service and leadership throughout the pandemic, which Canby Fire has been serving on the front lines of since March 2020.

“You’ve continued to be an exceptional leader in our community, and I know this is a really divisive subject, but I also know that the vaccine has saved lives,” Spoon said. “Though this is a difficult, controversial situation, I appreciate that you’ve been a leader in sharing your own story and demonstrating that to the public.”

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