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Tennessee's COVID-19 hospitalizations could soon surpass last winter's peak if nothing changes

"We could definitely see what we saw in late December and January," said UT Medical Center's Dr. Keith Gray. "We're preparing for that."

KNOXVILLE, Tenn — At the University of Tennessee Medical Center, the COVID-19 floor is filling up again. However, Chief Medical Officer Dr. Keith Gray said the fight is different this time. 

"We had testing constraints and PPE constraints. We don't have those anymore," Dr. Gray said. "What we have now is — if we continue on this trend — capacity constraints and also staffing constraints."

He said the staffing is affected by a lack of COVID-19 precautions in the community, as well as fatigue.

"We have such a large percentage of unvaccinated people in the community. We have no gathering restraints, few people are wearing masks," he said.

He said UTMC's vaccination rate is approaching 70 percent. While there are no plans to mandate the vaccine, he said all options are still on the table. 

"Our staff is tired. We've been doing this steadily for the last year and a half," Dr. Gray said. "That starts to wear on anyone, especially those on the frontline of COVID."

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The Tennessee Department of Health reported 1,793 people were concurrently hospitalized for COVID-19 on November 14, 2020. It took an additional 53 days to reach the peak at 3,344.

As of August 9, the state was once again reporting 1,793 hospitalizations. However, the acceleration is much faster than in the prior surges, and projections show it could take just 21 more days to reach that peak.

Credit: WBIR Data Team

"We have a way to prevent further surge, which is vaccination," Dr. Gray said. "We won't see the results of that immediately. There's a lag time between infection and hospitalization, and so we're expected to see significantly increasing numbers."

He said UTMC and other regional hospitals are coordinating daily to ensure they're prepared for any additional COVID-19 patients, as well as other people needing care.

Credit: WBIR Data Team

"Between the collective capacity of our healthcare systems, we will continue to manage the non-COVID related illnesses of the people of our community," he said.

While they haven't ruled anything out, he said they are trying to avoid postponing non-emergent surgeries because of the adverse effects it had last year.

Plus, they've learned how to better care for COVID-19 patients.

"We have people that are familiar with treatment, familiar with routines for those patients," he said. "The overwhelming majority in our hospital, and what we're seeing across the nation, is unvaccinated patients... we always hope for the best, but prepare for the worst."