Health care workers across the country have started receiving COVID-19 vaccines, but doctors and nurses at some of the nation's top hospitals are raising the alarm, charging that vaccine distribution has been unfair and a chaotic "free-for-all."

At hospitals in Massachusetts, New York, Arizona, California and elsewhere, medical professionals say that those with the most exposure to COVID-19 patients are not always the first to get vaccinated. And others who have little or no contact with COVID-19 patients have received vaccinations.

Ryan Van Velzer

More than 8,800 Kentuckians have taken the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. 

Gov. Andy Beshear said Tuesday that the current allocation from the federal government will allow the state to distribute the vaccine to more than 202,000 people.

The second Moderna shipment will be less than first planned, but Pfizer’s third shipment will be larger than its second, Beshear said.

“The total allocation, what should be received in the Commonwealth by the end of this month, it’s 202,650 doses, and remember they hold the booster,” he said. “So, these are 202,650 individuals that can be vaccinated here in Kentucky. That’s really exciting.”

Kentucky Hospital Association

As the third wave of COVID-19 continues to infect people, new data shows that many hospitals in the Ohio Valley are under strain, running short of bed space, especially for the most critically ill. The following graphs show how the pandemic is affecting hospital capacity in Kentucky, Ohio and West Virginia. (The story continues below)

Vanderbilt LifeFlight

Hospital capacity has become so tight in Tennessee that patients who would normally be airlifted to Vanderbilt University Medical Center are often being diverted away from Nashville altogether.

Over the weekend, COVID-19 hospitalizations reached nearly 2,700 statewide, setting a new record for the pandemic. Some rural hospitals don’t have intensive care units or the ability to manage patients on ventilators.

“Nashville has reached maximum capacity for their bed space, so now we’re having to utilize some of our larger rural hospitals to transfer from some of our smaller rural hospitals,” says flight nurse Mark Tankersley, who is stationed in Murfreesboro at one of Vanderbilt LifeFlight’s bases.

Kentucky Hospital Association

Kentucky’s surge in coronavirus cases has caused some hospitals to reduce other health care services to accommodate the growing number of COVID-19 patients.

Gov. Andy Beshear announced 2,690 new positive coronavirus cases Tuesday and 1,658 COVID-19 hospitalizations — a sharp increase over the past two weeks. 

Gov. Beshear said hospitals have already adjusted services to handle more COVID-19 patients.

Sgt. Timothy Cordeiro | TN Guard

Tennessee hospitals are calling off elective procedures again, doubling up hospital rooms and converting recovery rooms into intensive care units, according to the Tennessee Hospital Association. These changes come as hospitals are seeing twice as many patients with COVID-19 as they were in early October, surpassing 1,800 current hospitalizations on Monday.

Rooms and beds haven’t been the problem in Tennessee. It’s the nurses and doctors to staff them.

“I anticipate in the coming week(s) authorizing a complete cessation of ALL non-emergent surgeries and procedures in our hospitals so we can redeploy staff to care for an expected increase in cases,” Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine wrote on Facebook over the weekend.

Mark Cornelison | University of Kentucky

As Kentucky continues to post record high numbers of coronavirus cases, University of Kentucky HealthCare hospitals revealed plans to accommodate an expected spike of hospitalized COVID-19 patients.

UK’s Albert B. Chandler Hospital in Lexington treats COVID-19 patients from the city and some coronavirus patients have been transferred from other Kentucky hospitals. 

Over the last two weeks, the hospitals have seen a sharp increase of 20 to 25 additional COVID-19 patients. Despite the rise, the hospitals have not reached bed capacity.


Hospitalizations for COVID-19 have shot up 30% in Tennessee since the start of October. And the number of patients in intensive care units is near an all-time high — approaching 1,200 — with health officials saying they are older and sicker than earlier in the pandemic.

The average age of COVID patients hospitalized in Tennessee is 70, with more of them hailing from the rural areas that are reeling from the virus. And they’re staying an average of nine days.

“These are pretty extensive stays,” says Dr. Lisa Piercey, Tennessee’s health commissioner. “They require quite a bit of medication and treatment and recovery. Remember, even when you get out of the hospital, you are almost certainly not well. You still have a long recovery ahead of you.”


Michelle Hanks

It will likely take until September for University of Louisville Health to catch up on a backlog of elective procedures after they were shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic.

University officials plan to begin performing non-emergency surgeries and procedures at about half the capacity it did before the pandemic starting on Wednesday.

“If we go back to more normal volumes beginning in June, we think it’s probably going to take us till about September to really get caught up on everything because we’d have a more normal schedule plus catching up on that volume moving forward,” said Chief Medical Officer Jason Smith.


Creative Commons

If Kentucky’s healthcare facilities become overrun with coronavirus patients, tough decisions may have to be made about who gets access to limited resources. But hospitals won’t be making those decisions in a vacuum — they’ll be guided by the state’s crisis standards of care plan. 

On March 30, Department for Public Health Commissioner Dr. Stephen Stack sent a copy of the state’s crisis standards of care plan to all hospitals in Kentucky. In an attached letter, he said that as coronavirus spread around the state, “crisis standards of care will need to be deployed to save the largest number of lives possible.” 

The 54-page plan lays out how hospitals should respond to “ethical challenges as a result of scarce critical resources,” in an effort to minimize illness, death, and adverse effects on social order and economic stability. It also includes a series of steps hospitals can take to expand their capacity amid a surge of need.

Kentucky Hospital Association

Local public health departments and hospitals are on the front lines of facing the coronavirus throughout the Ohio Valley, yet the health professionals who run these facilities say years of underfunding and hospital closures have diminished these services that now face the crisis.

Dan Brown, a former councilman for the riverside village of Bellaire, Ohio, believes the emergency management services in his community and Belmont County are strong in facing the coronavirus, with several volunteer fire departments in “spitting distance” from his village. But that’s not what he’s worried about.

Belmont Community Hospital in Bellaire closed last April, and five miles upriver, East Ohio Regional Hospital and Ohio Valley Medical Center near Wheeling, West Virginia, closed their doors. One hospital remains in Wheeling.

J. Tyler Franklin

The University of Louisville is in talks with the state for potential help in buying the flailing downtown Jewish Hospital and other affiliated Louisville health practices. A spokesman with the University confirmed information Tuesday that the Courier Journal first obtained in a draft document.

As the CJ reported, under the terms of the draft proposal, University of Louisville Hospital would buy Jewish Hospital for $10 million, and receive $40 million from Sts. Mary and Elizabeth Hospital Foundation. The Kentucky Economic Development Authority is also considering loaning U of L Hospital $50 million (which would be “partially forgivable”) to support a sale.


This article was produced in partnership with nonprofit news organization MLK50, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.

This year, a hospital housekeeper left her job just three hours into her shift and caught a bus to Shelby County General Sessions Court in Memphis, Tenn.

KentuckyOne Health

After more than two years of being up for sale, the future of Louisville’s Jewish Hospital is unclear. If the downtown hospital closes, it will leave countless patients looking for care elsewhere. But nearby facilities don’t necessarily have capacity, and they can’t begin to hire more staff to address the needs until a decision is made about Jewish.

In 2017, parent company Catholic Health Initiatives announced Jewish Hospital, the Frazier Rehab Institute, Sts. Mary’s and Elizabeth and Jewish Hospital Shelbyville were up for sale following financial troubles. University of Louisville Hospital explored finding a partner to buy the hospital with, but earlier this month  said the effort failed.

Creative Commons

Casey Ellis grew up just a few houses away from the Owen County Hospital in Owenton, Kentucky, so he knows the essential role a rural hospital plays in a small town. Ellis is Judge Executive of Owen County, a job his grandfather and great-grandfather had before him. So he also knows how hard it is for a rural community to keep a hospital.

“I have always seen it struggle,” Ellis said. “I grew up seeing it struggle.”

Over the years, he’s seen it operate as a for-profit hospital, a non-profit, and under a private owner. The community even established a foundation to support it.