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As COVID-19 takes root in the Portland region, we've been gathering stories from health care workers and from people who represent them. We've pieced together this collection of anecdotes and perspectives from a variety of nurses, doctors, medical technicians, and worker advocates to give readers a snapshot of what fighting a pandemic looks like for Oregonians on the front lines.

As we speak to more workers in the medical field, we'll add their stories to this post.

Are you one of those people? Send us a message at news@portlandmercury.com.

Marilyn Brown

X-Ray technologist
The Portland Clinic

Marilyn Brown usually spends her workdays conducting general x-rays for patients who come into Portland Clinic's Beaverton location. Her office been flooded over the last two weeks with patients with pneumonia-like symptoms needing chest x-rays.

"They are sicker and they are more scared than usual," says Brown.

A chest x-ray is one of the first steps doctors take when trying to diagnose someone with respiratory problems, meaning Brown has no idea whether or not her patients actually have the virus when she interacts with them. Out of precaution, all clinic staff treating people with COVID-19 symptoms wear medical masks.

To protect healthy patients, Brown's clinic has requested all routine x-rays (like a mammogram screening) be postponed during the COVID-19 outbreak.

On Friday, Brown said her clinic had no shortages of medical masks, cleaning supplies, or other protective gear—like the highly effective (and highly sought after) N95 surgical masks.

"I do have concerns that we are going to run out based on how frequently we're using them,” Brown said.

Brown first began working in the health care industry in the 90s, when AIDS and Hepatitis C were the viruses she and her fellow clinicians were most worried about.

"But this out-shadows them by far," Brown says. "This is a big blimp that covers the sun. We're all very concerned."

Sam

Emergency department nurse
Providence St. Vincent Medical Center

This St. Vincent’s emergency department nurse asked that the Mercury keep their identity anonymous, out of fear of retribution from management—so we’ve given them the pseudonym Sam.

Sam, who treats patients with COVID-19 symptoms daily, described an abrupt escalation in the hospital’s response to the virus’ spread. Just a few weeks ago, Sam said, if people showed up at the emergency department showing signs of the coronavirus, they were asked to wait in their car until a doctor could see them, to prevent the possible spread of COVID-19. Now, the emergency department has blocked off half of its clinic just to seat and assess people with coronavirus symptoms.

“People are really scared,” Sam said. “And we’re running low on supplies. People have been running into the emergency department, grabbing boxes of masks, and running out. Same with hand sanitizer, it’s going missing very quickly.”

Sam said the hospital’s N95 masks have been moved to a locked cabinet to prevent theft. Because of the hospital's diminishing supply, N95 masks are now only allowed for “certain procedures.” Nurses dress in goggles, masks, and gloves when interacting with symptomatic patients—and all hospital staff have their temperature taken before entering the building.

Like members of the public, St. Vincent staff have been frustrated by how long it’s taking for COVID-19 tests to be processed by the state lab. However, St. Vincent began testing COVID-19 in-house today. The test takes about two days to process, much longer than the one-hour turnaround time for a standard influenza test.

Sam says staff are worried about St. Vincent’s capacity limitations as the virus continues to spread across Portland.

“As a hospital, we’re already always very full,” they said. “Under normal circumstances, the [emergency department] patients that we end up transfering to a hospital bed... they usually have to wait an hour or so before getting a bed. That’s only going to get longer.”

Sam believes government officials could have done more to stop the spread of COVID-19 by encouraging social distancing and quarantine earlier on.

“It’s frustrating,” Sam said. “The worst part is knowing it’s going to impact the most vulnerable. And we could have stopped it earlier. Yeah, knowing that is hard.”


Alex Bertolucci

Spokesperson
Portland Street Medicine

Portland Street Medicine’s (PSM) volunteer-led operation—providing first aid and medical care to houseless Portlanders—was already pretty scrappy before COVID-19 came to town. With a spike in need, PSM’s volunteer physicians have teamed up with folks at Multnomah County (including Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, who also works as an emergency department physician) to deliver basic medical care and preventative information to people who don’t have a house to quarantine themselves in.

Alex Bertolucci, a spokesperson for PSM, said that teams of volunteers visited numerous homeless camps and villages to offer support, supplies, and information about the virus.

“Right now, we’re in the heart of it,” said Bertolucci. “If people show symptoms, we’re asking them to self-quarantine in tents, in cars, wherever they can.”

Doctors are trying to keep people with mild symptoms from going to a doctor’s office or hospital, as to not overburden the regional health care system.

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“Only if they show severe symptoms are we telling them to go to a doctor’s office,” he said. “Otherwise we’re recommending sleep, rest, and Tylenol, as needed.

Over the weekend, several volunteers began developing flu-like symptoms, forcing PSM to cancel a Monday visit. For now, those volunteers have been pulled off the team. They have not yet been tested for COVID-19.

“We’re running a tighter shift now because of that,” said Bertolucci. “We don’t want to make things worse.”

Leslie

Nurse
Willamette Valley Medical Center

This longtime nurse at McMinnville’s Willamette Valley Medical Center (WVMC) also asked the Mercury protect their identity—especially after seeing their management discipline coworkers for raising concerns about the hospital’s COVID-19 response. We’ve given them the pseudonym Leslie.

Leslie told the Mercury about a coworker nurse who had just returned from a trip overseas. WVMC staff agreed with the nurse that they should self-quarantine for two weeks before returning to work. But there was a catch: WVMC wouldn’t pay the nurse for her quarantined hours away from the office or allow the nurse to cover it with any of her accrued extended illness pay. She was welcome, however, to use her paid time off or vacation pay to cover her quarantined hours.

She was forced to go without pay.

Nurses at WVMC only recently unionized to join the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA), and have yet to enter negotiations over an initial contract.

“This is why we unionized,” Leslie said. “To protect our workers in times like this. It’s concerning they aren’t going to do it independently. We’re expected to show up and care for sick patients… it’s so critical hospitals back us up to do our jobs safely.”


Rachel Gumpert

Spokesperson
Oregon Nurses Association

As the communications director for Oregon’s largest union for nurses, Oregon Nurses Association (ONA), Rachel Gumpert has heard a range of worried anecdotes from nurses on the front lines of th COVID-19 response across the state. Many of the concerns arise around conflicting protocol based on limited resources and constantly-changing rules. Some nurses are being told to reuse face masks throughout the day, others aren’t being told how to safely put on and take off protective gear, and others who’ve been exposed to the coronavirus have been asked to return to work without being tested.

At one hospital outside of Portland, Gumpert said a ONA nurse witnessed guests visiting a family member who had COVID-19 symptoms. After the visit, a hospital administrator allowed that family to go to the hospital cafeteria for a meal—putting hundreds of other visitors, staff, and patients at risk.

“It’s a crapshoot,” says Gumpert,” It really varies by facility to facility. At a time like this, we need to see more consistency across the board.”

Only over the weekend did Oregon hospitals start testing nurses for coronavirus. Thanks to pressure from ONA, Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) set up a drive-up testing service for medical staff at their Southwest Portland facility.

“Our nurses, they are very brave and courageous for going to work not knowing what they’re taking home to their families,” says Gumpert. “The systems we’re asking hospitals to follow around testing nurses aren’t just meant to keep the nurses themselves safe. Nurses are concerned about what they’re bringing home. Some of them have immunocompromised kids, or are living with elderly parents.”

From the stories she’s collected from Oregon’s nurses, Gumpert can confidently conclude that Oregon hospitals were “absolutely unprepared” for this pandemic.

“It’s obvious that all the lessons hospital management should have learned from the ebola crisis haven’t stuck,” said Gumpert. “Hospitals haven't been doing drills around how to respond to an outbreak, there’s little training on how to take on and take off protective equipment. Oregon isn’t leading the West in its response to this crisis. We’re cracking at the seams.”