KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Local legislative leaders met with Knoxville's medical experts Wednesday evening to discuss the next steps to curb the COVID-19 pandemic as daily deaths, hospitalizations and cases continue to surge to new highs.
The Knox County Health Department reported nearly 27% of all cases during the COVID-19 pandemic locally and 20% of all deaths have occurred in the month of December alone, and there is still half the month remaining.
Chief Medical Officers and infectious disease specialists with the University of Tennessee Medical Center, Tennova Healthcare, East Tennessee Children's Hospital and Covenant Health said, despite the dire surge, there is plenty of hope on the horizon as they prepare to administer the first COVID-19 vaccinations to their frontline healthcare workers this week.
Covenant Health and UTMC said they both expect to receive the first shipment of vaccines Thursday and are preparing to administer them to COVID unit doctors and nurses by Friday.
Dr. John Adams, an infectious disease physician with Covenant, said he intends to be one of the first in line at 6 a.m. Friday to receive his first vaccine.
Veteran health experts painted an early picture of what is likely to come as more people become vaccinated, which they compared to a "dimmer switch" effect. The decrease in new cases will not be immediate but they expect its impact will begin to taper off at a mounting rate, eventually.
Eventually, they said they expect COVID-19 to largely fade into the background with the myriad of other seasonal viruses that circulate yearly.
The "Five Core Actions" of social distancing and wearing masks will remain important during this process until COVID-19's spread is definitively cut off, as these will act as further layers of defense to greatly reduce the rate of spread and prevent the virus from reaching people who haven't received a vaccine.
Dr. Frank Beuerlein, Tennova's Chief Medical Officer, said the five core actions have been observably crucial in keeping the current surge of cases from becoming a "tsunami." The proof of this: the nearly absent flu season thus far.
Dr. Beuerlein said his hospital has seen far fewer serious cases of the flu than typical for this time of year — calling it a "nice blessing" because health care workers are currently strained with caring for a much larger number of COVID-19 patients.
The reason the flu season is still flat compared to previous years, Beuerlein and others said, is due to the same two-punch combination they expect will put the worst threats COVID-19 has to offer at bay for the larger public: a high number of people vaccinated against the virus on top of many people actively taking measures that prevent spread such as wearing masks and keeping physical distance.
"COVID will eventually get to that point where it’s not 'everywhere,'" UTMC Epidemiologist Dr. Mark Rasnake said.
Until the vaccine is widely administered, though, hospitals are still dealing with the present-day reality of ICUs nearly full of COVID patients, and they expect it to only worsen over the holidays. UTMC, Tennova, and Covenant Health and others are having to weigh deferring non-essential procedures to free up bed space for patients.
"We have a large amount of COVID, which means we have a large volume of patients staying in our hospitals for a long time," UTMC CMO Dr. Keith Gray said. "Our priority remains patient and team safety."
Hospitals continue to urge people not to avoid seeking medical care when they need it, saying they are one of the safest places to be currently.
The largest constraint hospitals are facing, Gray said, is staffing and capacity. Should those two dwindle to critically low levels, it could force another "hospital shutdown" like the ones seen in the first few months of the pandemic where nearly all non-essential procedures were halted.
Hospitals remain confident, though, that this can be avoided if people simply follow the "Five Core Actions" for a few more months until the vaccine can find its way to more people and provide a level of herd immunity to the general public.
Children have largely been able to handle COVID-19, but leaders say there's another issue of a surge in mental and behavioral concerns.
"This is approaching disastrous proportions in terms of how much of this is being seen in offices and ERs in our community and state," said Dr. Joe Childs with East TN Children's Hospital.
It said that means significant needs will be needed in the future to deal with the impact. "I think we’re also learning about the educational impact and delays in learning and development," said Childs.
State Senator Dr. Richard Briggs (R-Knoxville), along with Knox County Commission Chair Larsen Jay, Knoxville Vice Mayor Gwen McKenzie and Farragut Vice Mayor Louise Povlin invited several local hospital leaders to participate in a roundtable discussion on the pandemic's local impact.
The meeting was held virtually at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs, Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon, as well as several state legislators, county and city leaders were also invited to participate in the discussion.
Hospital leaders reported COVID-19's current impact on the community to provide leaders with a better understanding of how it's affecting area hospitals, current emergency plans, and what to expect moving into 2021 with the vaccine rollout now getting underway.
“My recent tour of the front lines of healthcare was eye-opening. This meeting brings together the thought leaders of our community for a 'COVID-reset,' to refresh the most relevant information, clarify misinformation, and provide a forum for elected leaders to hear the facts from area healthcare professionals," Jay said. "As we prepare for the holidays, and the worsening surge, having a unified game plan will keep us all safer and focused on the common goal of community health."
The morning before the meeting Wednesday, Knox County reported its deadliest day for COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic with 11 new deaths. More deaths and infections from COVID-19 have been reported in Knox County in the past three days alone than in all the months from the start of the pandemic through mid-July combined.