National Guard and contracted health workers are “phenomenal” at assisting Oregon hospitals


Patrick Jones


On Aug. 13, Gov. Kate Brown announced the deployment of the National Guard to hospitals across Oregon to assist frontline health care professionals in the midst of a COVID-19 surge and staffing shortage. Shortly after, she announced a deal with medical staffing agencies to supply contract nurses to Oregon hospitals. 

Doug Merrill, M.D., chief medical officer at St. Charles Health System, says the National Guard and contract health workers are “phenomenal” in assisting hospitals. He says they help maximize efficiency, boost morale, and allow their permanent workforce to allocate their time to surgeries and personal care.

“They bring a spirit that’s really significantly positive both to our staff, our patients, and their families.”


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When Gov. Brown announced the deployment, Merrill says he was hopeful, given the hospital system was in a “nearly impossible situation.” He says workforce issues were already present before the pandemic, but the pandemic grealy exacerbated them as workers retired or became travelers for higher wages

“So, 2020 comes and the pandemic hits. We have folks who get sick and have to drop out of practice. We have folks who decided to retire, and I am describing not only St. Charles but the entire national setting. There has been an estimate that as many as a quarter of a million nurses have taken early retirement as a result of the pandemic. So what was a really difficult situation accelerated into a nearly impossible situation.”

At one time, the St. Charles Health System had around 130 members of the National Guard and currently has 124 contract health workers from the state. The state’s contract accounts for about half of their contracted professionals, of which they have a total of 222. 

Merrill says the state contracted workers underwent “intense” orientation. Their presence allowed for St. Charles hospitals to become “tremendously” efficient, says Merrill. Their hospitals have had to double up beds in intensive care unit (ICU) rooms, where they would normally be singles. Merrill says the problem was not beds or space, but the workforce to staff the increased beds. 

“It’s great to have the beds and it’s great to have the space, but you still have to have staff to care for patients.”

The state contract nurses allowed St. Charles to assign staff to those expanded beds and spaces. It also allowed permanent nurses at St. Charles to start migrating to the operating room (OR) and caring for patients who need non-emergency — yet necessary — surgeries. The contracted workforce allowed St. Charles to start scheduling these types of surgeries, including open-heart surgeries and surgeries to remove cancer, and have staff for 15-20 patients in recovery rooms. 

“That was an immediate impact that because we had help with nurses to take care of patients upstairs, we now could bring nurses back to the operating room, back to the recovery room areas, and take care of more of those patients.”

Additional staff also allowed the hospital to expand capacity by 20%, while also allowing permanent nurses to take needed time off which led to higher morale. 

Merrill says the presence of the National Guard and contract nurses “boosted morale tremendously.” He commented specifically on the positivity of the National Guard:

“You can’t be around National Guard folks very long with recognizing the positive, let’s-get-it-done kind of attitude that they bring. I haven’t run into one of them that wasn’t upbeat.” 

Merrill says in the long run, he hopes the presence of these groups shows the public the abnormality of this surge and the pandemic in large. He says he hopes this leads to increasing vaccinations and mask wearing. 

“One of the values of seeing the National Guard outfitted in their camouflage uniforms on hospital campus is to remind people that this is not normal. We are not in a normal situation and it really makes a difference. You really do need to get vaccinated, and you really do need to wear a mask. What we are dealing with as a population hasn’t been dealt with in over 100 years, and it’s never been this bad.”

Hospitals in the St. Charles Health System are currently at 90% capacity and its emergency rooms are full.