Columbia Memorial Hospital, directed to scale back care to concentrate on the coronavirus, on Tuesday announced a temporary layoff of 90 employees.

Gov. Kate Brown ordered hospitals and other health care providers in Oregon last week to stop nonemergency procedures to preserve surgical masks and other medical supplies for use in responding to the virus. Hospital administrators also said they reduced nonessential and elective services to keep patients and caregivers safe.

Emergency room

Columbia Memorial Hospital announced temporary layoffs amid virus restrictions.

Columbia Memorial said the layoffs involve support staff and other employees who do not directly work in patient care. The employees, the hospital said, will receive three weeks of pay and benefits.

The hospital has about 740 employees, so the layoff represents about 12% of the workforce.

Erik Thorsen, Columbia Memorial’s CEO, said in a statement that “these employees can rest assured they will be called back when this pandemic is over.”

Columbia Memorial explained that the hospital has to protect the staff that would need to care for patients with the virus. Temporarily reducing the number of employees, the hospital said, could help prevent caregivers from getting sick.

The 25-bed hospital in Astoria has plans to expand operations if necessary to respond to local cases of COVID-19. As of Wednesday, Clatsop County had two reported cases.

“Our top priority is to keep our employees, patients and community safe during this pandemic,” Thorsen said.

Regional representatives with the Service Employees International Union Local 49, which includes hundreds of employees at Columbia Memorial, described the situation as a tough balance for the hospital and workers as they prepare for anticipated coronavirus cases.

“COVID-19 is having a devastating impact on our whole community and that includes closing clinics and rescheduling scheduled health care events,” a statement from the union said. “These closures mean our small and rural hospitals are in financial danger. We are currently working (with) the administration at Columbia Memorial Hospital to mitigate the impact of this, but there will be harm to health care workers and their families.”

In a message to hospital staff on Tuesday afternoon, Thorsen praised their sacrifices over the past few weeks and said he was “keenly aware of my responsibility to maintain a viable organization whose goal is to keep our community healthy.

“The business model we were working from last month is no longer appropriate, and we are forced to make some incredibly difficult choices.”

Columbia Memorial is a Level IV trauma and critical access hospital and one of the North Coast’s largest employers.

In his message to staff, Thorsen said the hospital has been required to “close virtually all nonessential and elective services, including routine clinic visits, physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, cardiac rehab, screening mammograms and many others.

“Some of these decisions were ordered by Gov. Brown, and others were made to keep patients and caregivers safe and preserve critical personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies.”

Over the past five years, The Astorian reported in January, the hospital’s operating margin nearly doubled from 5.7% to 11%, the highest among rural or nonprofit medical facilities in Oregon.

Emily Simmons, a contract specialist with the hospital who was laid off, said most employees being let go understand the decision was in the best interest of the people they serve.

“CMH is making sure that we’re not overstaffed and exposing more people if there actually comes a case there,” she said. “It’s just for the best interest in the community. I’m a 100% believer in that.”

Simmons described the tenor of the hospital staff as nervous but prepared.

“My biggest concern was if I did get exposed, that I brought it home to my mom, who’s almost 90,” she said. “But, even then, the precautions are in place. I think people are confident. They’re nervous, but they’re confident.”

Edward Stratton is a reporter for The Astorian. Contact him at 971-704-1719 or estratton@dailyastorian.com.