OREGON, USA — As Oregon breaks records for daily coronavirus cases, more people are having to delay surgeries and other treatments because of hospital overcrowding.
Joyce Atkins, 75, of Tualatin loves to be active. She has played tennis since high school, but had to abruptly stop in 2019 when her back began having issues.
"If I get up or turn wrong, it sends shooting pain down my legs," she described.
When the pandemic began in 2020, she struggled to find appointments to see a doctor. After months, experts eventually determined she had spinal stenosis with neurogenic claudication. The condition causes her spinal canal to narrow, putting pressure on nerves and causing severe pain.
A solution to get Atkins back to her active lifestyle is surgery. She scheduled it for September 2021. But Kaiser Permanente had to cancel the procedure at the height of the delta variant surge.
Hospital systems were overwhelmed by COVID patients and understaffing.
"In a way, it's not elective surgery," Atkins said. "Because my life is not my life anymore."
She had rescheduled the surgery for this week. It just got canceled again.
"I'm frustrated and I'm depressed, because this is two years now I've been going through this," Atkins said.
Dave Northfield with the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems (OAHHS) spoke with KGW just before Christmas, ahead of the omicron surge.
OAHHS represents 62 community hospitals across the state.
"This really is an all-hands-on-deck moment," Northfield said. "The hospitals are full today."
He said at the end of December, about 180 Oregon patients were waiting to get into the hospital for other care. However, about 470 were stuck in hospitals waiting to be discharged to lower levels of care, such as a long-term care facility.
The labor shortage is affecting the entire medical field, making it difficult for hospitals to release patients who need ongoing care.
"The pipeline isn't working as it's supposed to," Northfield said.
Oregon Health Authority data from Jan. 7 show most ICU and regular hospital beds are still full.
"It's hard because this is preventable," Kaiser Permanente Northwest COO Wendy Watson told KGW in December.
Watson said many people have had to continue delaying surgeries and treatments for other conditions because of COVID, capacity and low staffing.
"Just this feeling that we can't deliver the care that we want to give to everyone, but we know if every single person got vaccinated, we could get out of this," Watson said.
"Our healthcare workers have been working extraordinarily hard," added Dr. Renee Edwards, chief medical officer for OHSU.
To get medical operations back on track, Edwards said the community has to step up against COVID.
"We know how to control the spread of this disease," she said.
These experts said the ripple effect from people not masking or getting vaccinated impacts those like Joyce Atkins the most, waiting years for other procedures.
"They're impeding my health," Atkins said.
Although the omicron variant has so far resulted in less severe illness for most patients, some people continue to become very ill.
Because the Oregon hospital system was already so backlogged, the sheer numbers of new COVID infections and people trying to get tested are adding more burden for health care workers.
Hospitals and emergency rooms ask people with mild symptoms to seek testing elsewhere or quarantine at home to help ease up on the system.