National Guard at SkyLakes

Members of the National Guard participate in orientation at Sky Lakes Medical Center on Sept. 10, 2021.

COVID numbers in Klamath County remain high but stable, allowing members of the Air National Guard stationed for the last month at Sky Lakes Medical Center to wind down their mission.

All National Guard members are expected to depart by the end of November, though that could change if COVID numbers trend upward in the near future.

Tom Hottman, public information officer at Sky Lakes, said the hospital is thankful for the 48 temporary, trained healthcare staff who were dispatched to the hospital, as well as the 23 members of the National Guard who provided non-clinical assistance during the current COVID spike.

In August, Gov. Kate Brown activated up to 1,500 Oregon National Guard members to assist in hospitals overwhelmed by COVID patients. The Guard members assisting at Sky Lakes are all from the 173rd Fighter Wing unit housed at Kingsley Field Air National Guard Base in Klamath Falls.

“It has been a very positive experience,” said Jennifer Shirar, public affairs superintendent for the unit. “The interaction, and the community engagement and knowing we are there, it’s been good.”

As of Tuesday, she said there were 13 members of the 173rd Fighter Wing unit still working out of Sky Lakes.

“Right now the orders go through November, but those can be extended, and there is talk of extending them if the need arises, but it is an evolving situation,” Shirar said. “We are going with the flow.”

If the hospital experiences another spike in cases, Shirar said the National Guard will be ready to serve Oregon in any way it can.

“We always have to be ready to answer that call,” she said.

Hottman said the hospital will ask the state to lengthen the National Guard assistance if COVID again threatens to exhaust current resources.

“Negotiations would be underway to try to extend the contract with the National Guard ... to try to keep the assistance because it really has been worthwhile and gives caregivers a little of a break,” he said.

Hottman said the latest COVID forecasts for Sky Lakes show the virus staying constant in October, with a gradual decline through November. However, Hottman said the hospital’s models show huge ranges, with many factors in flux.

In addition to the Guard members at Sky Lakes, there are members of the 173rd Fighter Wing unit still assisting at hospitals in Salem and Springfield. The majority of the their work at hospitals involves non-clinical administrative tasks, providing relief for hospital staff grappling with the pandemic.

The tasks, however, are assigned based on each Guard member’s skill set, Shirar said.

For example, some who have a law enforcement background provide security at hospitals.

“Our motto is ‘Always Ready, Always There’ and I think we’ve shown that in the last couple of months with the hospital and the wildfire response,” Shirar said.

Sky Lakes Medical Center has consistently reported more than 20 COVID-19 patients for several weeks, some of the highest numbers seen throughout the pandemic. In addition, the hospital’s patient census has been consistently hitting the high 80s and low 90s on a regular basis, an abnormal load for the hospital.

On Tuesday, Sky Lakes reported it remains at capacity, with 26 COVID-positive inpatients, a slight increase from 24 the day before.

Of the 26 COVID patients in the hospital, only two are vaccinated. The five patients receiving intensive care are all unvaccinated.

On Monday, Oct. 18, the Oregon Health Authority reported 81 confirmed and presumptive cases of COVID-19.

— Reporter Joe Siess can be reached at (541) 885-4481 or jsiess@heraldandnews.com. Follow him on Twitter @jomsiess