Sky Lakes Medical Center late Monday opened a second isolation unit for COVID-19 patients and leaders are evaluating postponing surgeries as the number of COVID-19 cases rapidly rises.

As of Tuesday morning, there were 20 COVID-19 patients at Sky Lakes. The number of people requiring hospitalization because of COVID-19 has doubled since Friday, and today’s COVID-19 patient census is three times the number from a week ago.

The case load is straining the medical center’s capacity, said Grant Niskanen, MD, Vice President for Medical Affairs at Sky Lakes and a practicing family medicine physician.

“The COVID-19 surge that swamped hospitals throughout Southern and Central Oregon earlier this month has arrived in Klamath Falls,” he said, predicting the number of local COVID-19 patients will continue to increase well into September.

Niskanen reiterated his plea for vaccinations. “Except for only a couple, the COVID-19 patients we’re treating now are unvaccinated,” he said. “(Vaccines) are very effective at preventing hospitalization and death.”

The surge is affecting other parts of the hospital as well. Three of the current COVID-19 patients are in the hospital’s intensive care unit, which had only two available beds Tuesday morning.

“We made plans in the winter to open a second COVID-19 isolation unit and luckily we did not need to. Now, because of the sudden surge, we have no choice” said Paul Stewart, Sky Lakes President and Chief Executive Officer.

Sky Lakes clinical leaders reconfigured the COVID-19 isolation units to increase efficiency and improve safety. The patient load is now spread more evenly between the two units, which have a combined capacity of 24 patients. Patients requiring the most intensive treatment are placed in another section of the medical center to meet their more specialized needs.

The spike in COVID-19 cases comes when Sky Lakes is already nearing maximum capacity with other patients. “We may have more physical beds in the house, but we’ve had to divert so many of our resources to COVID-19 care that we don’t have the appropriate staff available for additional non-COVID patients,” Stewart said.

Sky Lakes is seeking temporary staffing to help meet increased demands, Stewart said. “Our staff have been working hard to deal with everything this pandemic has handed us. They are doing a fantastic job, but they are tired and stressed.”

Most of the elective surgeries that require overnight stays are being indefinitely postponed to relieve pressure elsewhere and ensure adequate COVID-19 capacity, said Ron Woita, RN, Vice President of Patient Care Services. “This is not yet a ‘blanket’ order – there may be circumstances that require a procedure immediately – but we are considering each case very carefully. If the number of COVID-19 patients continues to climb, we may need to reschedule all elective procedures.”

As the number of positive COVID-19 tests increases, the Emergency Department is often “slammed” by an influx of people with COVID-19 symptoms, Woita said. “More and more people are turning to the E.D. for care as their symptoms become more severe,” he said.

“Still, we absolutely want people to come to the Emergency Department when they need medical assistance urgently. We never close,” he said, adding he apologized to anyone with non-emergent needs who may have experienced a long wait recently.

Medical center leaders are investigating erecting a field hospital-like tent outside the Emergency Department in a replay of March 2020 when the pandemic was still new. “This would take some of the load from the Emergency Department, add capacity to help us care for people with less-urgent medical needs, and help control the flow of patients requiring isolation,” Woita said.

Stewart also urged people to get vaccinated to slow the spread of the virus. “The best time to have been vaccinated was three or four months ago,” he said. “The second-best time is now.”

Vaccines are safe, effective, and free. The FDA on Monday gave the Pfizer vaccine full approval for people 16 and older. Full approval of the Moderna vaccine is expected soon.