COVID hospitalizations are beginning to ease up in parts of Tennessee. But intensive care units remain dangerously full, creating a backup in hospitals across the state.
The critical access hospital in Bolivar usually only has two or three patients at any one time. Right now, the rural West Tennessee facility has a dozen patients, and half of them are sick with COVID, according to CEO Ruby Kirby.
“In normal times, we would be able to get those patients out to a higher level of care,” she says.
Some are on ventilators being cared for in the small emergency department and need to be transferred to an ICU in Jackson, Memphis or Nashville. But there are no openings, Kirby says.
“We’re managing them, but it is putting a strain on the system, trying to hold these patients in these hospitals until we can get them moved,” she says.
The delta variant first started spreading in West Tennessee, which is experiencing the largest decreases in hospitalizations, according to weekly data published for each region by the Tennessee Hospital Association.
COVID hospitalizations statewide (current data here) have declined slightly over the last week after hitting a new record. But more than a thousand COVID patients remain in ICUs across Tennessee.
And patient numbers are still climbing in East Tennessee.
“We don’t really know how bad this is going to get or how long it’s going to last,” says Dr. James Shamiyeh, who directs the heart and lung institute at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. “So we’re all doing these creative things, particularly around staffing, to continue delivering safe care.”
Staffing remains the primary limiting factor for hospitals who are flooded with COVID patients.
Many hospitals in Tennessee are now receiving help from the state’s National Guard. And the state has even offered money to help pay for travel nurses, but East Tennessee hospitals say even offering high pay isn’t enough to fill all the openings left by nurses who’ve left the bedside in COVID-swamped ICUs.
“There is no more staff to bring in,” says Dr. Harold Naremore, the chief medical officer of Blount Memorial Hospital. “The challenges of that are very frightening, frankly.”
Hospital officials are universally pleading with Tennessee residents to get the COVID vaccine, with less than half the population fully vaccinated and roughly 90% of hospitalized patients unvaccinated. The state currently has the highest rate of transmission in the country and has — off and on — for the last few weeks.