KNOXVILLE, Tenn — Across East Tennessee, hospitalizations for COVID-19 are once again on the rise.
As of Saturday, the Knox County Health Department said at least 360 people are being treated for the virus at the region's 19 hospitals.
About half of those are patients at Covenant Hospitals, according to data released by the organization.
"We have begun to see an increase with our admissions with COVID inpatients," said Dr. Mark Browne, the Covenant Health Chief Medical Officer and Senior Vice President. "Fewer ICU patients, fewer patients on a ventilator ... although we certainly have some very sick patients in the hospital."
He said the omicron variant appears to be milder than the previous strains.
"This variant looks like it's more of an upper respiratory disease than a lower respiratory disease," he said. "So, not as many people with bad pulmonary disease."
Plus, vaccinations are helping keep people out of the hospital.
"Vaccines still work," he said. "They still do prevent severe illness, hospitalization and death."
The challenge that hasn't gone away is staffing in hospitals. Health leaders said more people are staying home sick, more people are retiring early and more healthcare workers are stepping down from their positions.
"Our staff has been heroic," Dr. Browne said. "They've worked extraordinarily hard and many of them have put in long, long, long and tireless hours."
But, like other healthcare workers across the country, they're tired.
"We have seen some burnout. We've seen some turnover, etc.," Dr. Browne said. "But, our staff is hanging in there."
He said a number of his employees are out with COVID-19, a problem other area hospitals have reported as well. But this time, the Tennessee National Guard has not been called in to help.
"Those resources aren't available anywhere in the state that I'm aware of," he said. "We don't have those extra hands this time — no different than anybody else."
For now, they're taking the pandemic one day at a time until this wave passes too.
"Be patient. Be kind. We're all working together for the same end," he said. "We care for patients no matter what disease or pandemic is going on."