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Tennessee COVID Hospitalizations Are Climbing With No Peak In Sight

Tennessee hospitalizations have been climbing since July 4, when they hit a low point of fewer than 200 COVID patients statewide.
Courtesy Tennessee Department of Health
Tennessee hospitalizations have been climbing since July 4, when they hit a low point of fewer than 200 COVID patients statewide.

Hospitalizations just keep climbing in Tennessee. The state is nearing 2,500 patients with COVID. And administrators know the worst is likely yet to come with new infections still surging and nearly 5,500 new cases confirmed on Wednesday alone.

Hospitals in Tennessee are already — in effect — full. Nurse Jerusha Robinson works at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, where the stream of patients is constant.

“Especially with our COVID patients, we know when we have someone who moves from our ICU to our stepdown unit, very shortly after, we’re going to get another ICU patient who is just as sick as that patient or even more sick,” she said Wednesday after her overnight shift.

More: Tennessee Hospitals Are Full And Left With Fewer Strings To Pull

The limiting factor keeping hospitals from being able to handle more patients, at the moment, is not the number of beds — it’s the number of nurses. And COVID patients often require more attention. For example, those near death on an ECMO machine that oxygenates their blood have to have their own dedicated nurse.

Tennessee hospitalizations have been climbing since July 4, when they hit a low point of fewer than 200 COVID patients statewide.Courtesy Tennessee Department of Health

The Tennessee Guard has been authorized to work inside hospitals to relieve some of the staffing pressure, though no teams have been deployed yet, according to a Guard spokesman. The state is also helping some hospitals pay to bring in nurses from other parts of the country.

More: Tennessee Quietly Reinstates Emergency Order To Relieve Short-Staffed Hospitals

ICUs are running at more than 90% of capacity, and more than 40% of their patients have COVID, as of Monday. But the backup in the heart of hospitals also spills into what is often the entry point — emergency rooms.

“If you don’t have a true medical emergency, please do not go to an emergency department,” Dr. Lisa Piercey, the state’s health commissioner, said on Monday.

Within the first 15 days of August, Tennessee had already seen 1,023 new COVID hospitalizations — more than during any full month of the pandemic. And at this point, nearly 60 hospitalizations are pediatric patients.

Medical professionals call for masking

Given the alarming rise in infections and hospitalizations, even a physician on Gov. Bill Lee’s own COVID advisory panel is challenging his new rule that gives parents broad authority to opt out of school mask mandates.

More: How The Governor’s Executive Order Is Impacting The Push For Masks In Schools

Dr. Sara Cross is the infectious disease chief at the public hospital in Memphis, Region One, and a member of Tennessee’s coronavirus task force.

“When people get sick, they go to the doctor or hospital. They do not go to the state capitol to get medical advice or treatment,” she said in a statement posted to social media. “Doctors know best. Misinformation and politics are going to kill many innocent if we don’t do everything we can to protect them.”

The chorus of medical professionals opposing the governor’s latest emergency order is growing. As of Wednesday evening, 4,800 mostly medical professionals had signed a petition asking Gov. Lee to listen to infectious disease experts and not make it so easy for parents to disregard school mask mandates.

Vaccinations spiking too — and that’s a good thing

Tennessee still lags other states in the number of residents getting their COVID-19 vaccines. But the rate has doubled in the last month — from 58,000 a week to more than 100,000 doses given a week.

On Wednesday, the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition hosted its fourth vaccination event. Nashville resident Leonardo Guerrero stopped in to get his first shot after his wife consistently pressed him to do it. He had held out because of vaccine concerns he read about on social media.

“I have to be with other people who got it too,” he says. “So, I have to talk to them about it. And they know, but they’re the same way like me. They don’t want to do it.”

But seeing that his wife was doing well health-wise after the vaccine encouraged him to step up and protect his young daughter, since he encounters a lot of people at work and doesn’t know their vaccination status.

WPLN’s Ambriehl Crutchfield contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 WPLN News. To see more, visit WPLN News.

Blake Farmer is Nashville Public Radio's senior health care reporter. In a partnership with Kaiser Health News and NPR, Blake covers health in Tennessee and the health care industry in the Nashville area for local and national audiences.
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