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Hospital leader warns of health care strains caused by surging virus

Dr. Wendy Long spoke Tuesday at Gov. Bill Lee's weekly briefing.

With hospitals routinely seeing new high numbers of patients sick with COVID-19 complications, the head of the state hospital association is warning of possible dire days ahead.

"Hospital capacity has always been a concern, but we’re running out of levers to pull," Dr. Wendy Long of the Tennessee Hospital Association told reporters. "At this rate of growth it will impact other critical services that are important to you and your community."

Hospitalizations among Knox Countians reached a new record number Tuesday, with 106 people now getting care for the virus. Hospitals elsewhere are seeing similar increases.

Across the state, more than 2,000 people are in the hospital fighting the coronavirus. 

Long, speaking during Gov. Bill Lee's weekly press briefing, said some hospitals have little bed availability.

"Hospital staff are exhausted both physically and emotionally," she said.

COVID patients now make up 34 percent -- 1 out of 3 -- of all ICU patients. In July, the number was 19 percent, Long said.

Other critical services offered by hospitals could be affected, she said.

Nationwide, a spike in virus cases is causing similar alarm among medical experts. Some states and municipalities are imposing mask mandates and imposing greater restrictions on gatherings.

People are also being advised strongly to skip Thanksgiving travel and only socialize in small, family groups to help stop the spread of the virus.

On Tuesday, the Hospital Association issued an open letter to people of the state.

"We are once again asking for your help in slowing the spread of COVID-19. While we miss socializing with our family and friends, we ask that you find ways to celebrate safely. We ask this because as cases and hospitalizations continue to climb, we are facing the scenario we hoped would never come - many areas throughout the state have little to no bed capacity. This not only impacts access to care for COVID-19 patients, but for all types of hospital care including surgeries, heart attacks, strokes, and injuries," the statement reads.

Lee urged Tennesseans to wear a mask to help stop the spread. But he has declined to impose his own statewide mandate, arguing local leaders are empowered to take the steps they think are best.

Lee said there are two back-up emergency centers, one in Nashville and one in Memphis, that can help with patient overflow if necessary. But they will need staff if they end up being used, he said.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health, said vaccines that first will go to front-line health care workers should become available in mid December.

Vaccines for the general population likely will become available by late spring or early summer, she said.

When vaccines become available, Lee said he didn't think they would be mandated for public school systems.