Former Gov. Kitzhaber: Oregon 'Behind The Curve' In Expanding Hospital Capacity Amid Virus

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
March 16, 2020 12:27 a.m.

As Gov. Kate Brown works to address the coronavirus pandemic upending American life, her predecessor has got a few ideas about what Oregon could be doing better.

In a statement he shared with OPB Sunday, former Gov. John Kitzhaber said the state should be working far more urgently to increase capacity of its healthcare system.


“This is a true emergency,” wrote Kitzhaber, a former emergency room doctor who resigned from the state's top office in 2015 amid an inquiry into possible influence peddling. “It is imperative that we move beyond a public health response (as important as that is) to an emergency response.”

The five-page memo lays out a synopsis of the pandemic, noting it poses huge potential problems for global supply chains, impacted employees and a health system that could be incapacitated if the virus spreads unchecked.

Related: Read former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber's statement

Not all of that is in Oregon's power to control, Kitzhaber wrote, and Oregon is already working to address the spread of the disease by banning large gatherings, closing schools, and other measures. The state is also working to minimize the impact the disease could have on businesses and people who aren't able to work as a result.

But Kitzhaber concluded the state is “behind the curve” when it comes to ensuring it has adequate health care resources available when the true scope of the virus becomes more clear. State health officials believe that hundreds of cases of COVID-19 are currently undetected in Oregon, and that the virus could infect more than 75,000 Oregonians by May if left unchecked.

“Every day that goes by without an aggressive, coordinated Emergency Response Plan, undermines the likelihood that we will be able to successfully respond and manage the potential of a dramatic increase in hospital admissions,” Kitzhaber wrote. “Our health care system is currently not prepared to deal with the potential magnitude of COVID-19.”

Kitzhaber is far from the only person pointing this out. As OPB reported last week, the state has just 6,601 staffed hospital beds, and many of those are likely occupied. If the virus spreads as fast as some fear, the state could be swarmed with thousands and thousands more serious cases than it can handle.


The Portland Tribune reported today that data from the Kaiser Family Foundation suggests that Oregon has the lowest number of hospital beds per 1,000 residents of any state, at 1.6.

Kitzhaber’s memo calls for quick action to change that. The former governor says a formal “emergency response team” should be formed, and should formulate a plan for coordinating hospital beds statewide and proactively identifying what equipment Oregon can bring to bear.

“This needs to go beyond just counting masks,” Kitzhaber wrote. “We need to be proactive and creative — for example, how many people in Oregon who have been diagnosed with sleep apnea have a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) machine sitting unused in their home?”

Kitzhaber also says the state must immediately identify facilities where it can expand the state’s bed capacity in the shortest period of time. That could include, he notes, tapping facilities such Portland’s unused Wapato Jail, which is currently under private ownership with plans to turn it into a homeless shelter.

“There is no reason why this capacity could not still be used for the original purpose once the pandemic is over and, indeed, some of the investments in the facility that would be needed in the short term, might be an asset to the long-term goal around homelessness,” Kitzhaber wrote.

It’s possible, of course, that Brown and her team are already working on some or all of these issues. The governor has alluded to looking to expand hospital capacity in recent days, and her office has announced a series of major developments for how it’s tackling COVID-19 again and again this week.

The governor told reporters on Friday that the federal government had been unresponsive to a March 3 request for protective equipment, ventilators and other supplies she’d requested. Eventually, federal officials agreed to send roughly a tenth of what Brown asked for, she said.

“Honestly, it’s too late, and it’s absolutely inadequate,” Brown said.

Kitzhaber conceded that he has not spoken with Brown or her staff about his suggestions.

Beyond his concern over hospital capacity, Kitzhaber says the state must better manage its messaging and work to "prevent panic, hoarding and blame."

“The best bulwark against these things is close communications with communities through trusted messengers — ensuring people that they are not alone, keeping them apprised of what is going on and, especially, how they can help and support one another,” he wrote.

The memo is not the first time Kitzhaber’s called for a stronger response to the pandemic. Last week, he signed his name alongside hundreds of practicing physicians on a letter asking Brown to take a series of sweeping steps to stem the spread of the coronavirus.