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One in every 33 Nashville residents has COVID. Let that sink in.

Blake Farmer
In Nashville, drivers wait hours for COVID tests ahead of the Christmas holiday.

There has never been so much COVID in Nashville. One in 33 Davidson County residents has an active case right now. But hospitals are not yet feeling the pinch like they did with the Delta variant.

In total, Nashville has nearly 23,000 cases, largely due to the more contagious Omicron variant.

“To put this in perspective, when we were at our worst days with the Delta variant, we had 8,500, and we’re now at nearly three times that number,” Dr. Alex Jahangir, the city’s coronavirus taskforce chair, said at a briefing Monday.

The city’s positivity rate has grown even higher with 40% of tests coming back positive. And public health officials say they know the total is an undercount given the prevalence of at-home rapid testing.

The number of infections has even made staffing city government difficult. More than 120 people with the Nashville Fire Department — nearly 10% of the staff — are out due to COVID.

City officials are pleading with residents to get their booster shots and for those who’ve never had the vaccine to get their first doses. While vaccinated people can still contract and even spread COVID, they’re far less likely to land in the hospital.

COVID is high in Nashville hospitals, but less concerning than the summer surge

Nashville is seeing clear signs that the Omicron variant of COVID isn’t making people as sick as the Delta strain. Hospitalizations are much higher than they were 90 days ago, but intensive care units are no more full.

Three months ago, when Delta was the dominant variant, the public health department says 36% of patients in Nashville hospitals were in the ICU. That takes a much bigger toll on staffing since many patients need a one-on-one nurse around the clock.

Currently, the Nashville health department says about 23% of the city’s 707 COVID patients are in ICUs. And many of those that aren’t in ICUs have no symptoms — especially if they’re vaccinated — but are being treated for other ailments, hospital leaders say. They’ve come to be called “incidental” cases.

Recent data out of New York City found that roughly half of all hospitalized patients testing positive for COVID had incidental cases rather than COVID being the primary reason for their admission. Nashville officials believe the city’s number is likely comparable.

Still, it’s a strain on staffing, since nurses and doctors have to be much more careful about not catching COVID themselves, which would require them to stay home for a week.

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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