PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) -- Oregon's governor said Friday she will send up to 1,500 National Guard troops to hospitals around the state to assist healthcare workers who are being pushed to the brink by a surge of COVID-19 cases driven by the Delta variant.
Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, said the first group of 500 Guard members will be deployed next Friday to serve as material and equipment runners in the most stricken hospitals and to help with COVID-19 testing, among other things. Troops will be sent to 20 hospitals around Oregon.
There are 733 people hospitalized with the virus in Oregon as of Friday, including 185 people in intensive care units -- more than 60 people more than just a day before and nearly double what the number was two weeks ago.
"I cannot emphasize enough the seriousness of this crisis for all Oregonians, especially those needing emergency and intensive care," Brown said, reiterating that message. "When our hospitals are full with COVID-19 patients, there may not be room for someone needing care after a car crash, a heart attack, or other emergency situation."
The Delta variant now makes up 96% of all samples tested, up from just 15% six weeks ago, according to Oregon Health Authority data.
"The harsh, and frustrating reality is that the Delta variant has changed everything," the governor said.
Oregon, once viewed as a pandemic success story, has seen that progress slip away in recent weeks as the highly contagious Delta variant gains a foothold in counties with lower vaccination rates. The state kept an indoor mask mandate and social distancing rules in place until June 30, shut down restaurants, bars, gyms and other businesses repeatedly since March 2020 and had strict indoor capacity limits for businesses long after other states had returned to near-normal.
Amid the surge, Brown has mandated masks for all students and staff in K-12 schools when classes resume later this month regardless of vaccination status and a new statewide indoor mask mandate took effect Friday.
But earlier this week, hospitals warned that Oregon's record-setting virus hospitalization numbers were pushing them to capacity and some have already had to start delaying care for non-COVID conditions. Several counties in southern Oregon, where fewer than half of eligible adults are vaccinated, are particularly hard hit.
All hospitals in Jackson and Josephine counties, in the state's southwest corner, are at capacity, with patients on gurneys in hallways and emergency rooms overflowing. The counties teamed up to ask the state to set up a medical tent for non-COVID patients. They are awaiting a response.
"This is the worst condition our hospitals have seen, likely ever. I don't know that anyone could recall a time where we've had this much pressure on our health care system," Josephine County Public Health Manager Michael Weber told reporters Thursday on a conference call.
Oregon Health & Science University said dire projections show the state will have 1,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Labor Day if nothing changes, leaving Oregon short 400 to 500 hospital beds.
"This is the worst-case scenario that Oregonians worked so hard to avoid in March 2020," the hospital said in a statement. "It's a shocking number, and one that was repeatedly checked against other available data and the effects of the current surge observed in other states."
There were 1,785 new or presumed cases statewide Friday and seven deaths. Other deaths this week included a 19-year-old woman in the state's rural northeastern corner.
About 29% of adults in Oregon are unvaccinated and more than 102,000 vaccine doses have been thrown away because of non-use. More than 70% of eligible residents have had at least once shot, and 65% are fully vaccinated, according to state data.