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'We are not overrun with COVID-19' | East Tennessee hospitals are filling up, but say they have room to spare

On Wednesday, there were just 21 ICU beds left across all 19 hospitals in East Tennessee. Doctors say that's because they're treating more than just COVID-19.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — For months, hospitalizations remained relatively steady and low across East Tennessee. The most COVID-19 patients hospitalized at the same time in the region was just 18 — until June 20.

From there, the hospitalizations have kept rising.

"Our expectation is more than 50 cases a day," said Dr. Keith Gray, Chief Medical Officer at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. "I really didn't think I would ever say that, but we've gone from five or 10 cases a day to more than 50 cases a day."

As of Wednesday, data from the Knox County Health Department showed 60 percent of ventilators — 144 of 242 — were available. 

But bed space was more limited. Among the 19 hospitals in East Tennessee, there were just 21 of 272 ICU beds available for use. 

Dr. Gray said the number of COVID-19 patients needing hospital stays, ICU beds and ventilators have all doubled in the last month. Still, he said there's more to look at than just numbers.

"Our situation is very different and much more urgent than it was when I was here one month ago," he said during a Knox County Health Department briefing. "Despite the data that I just presented, we are not overrun with COVID."

Credit: KCHD

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Dr. Gray said area hospitals have resumed most elective procedures and routine health care appointments, which can take up available space.

"We are at near pre-COVID levels of operations," he said. "Our hospitals are at near capacity with maintaining the routine health and wellness of our community."

But as of now, Dr. Gray said area hospitals are not planning on pausing elective procedures.

"Elective care doesn't mean that it's not needed," Dr. Gray said. "We know from last time that when we delayed care for some of our patients that had a disease, it was exacerbated and some of those patients presented with disease that was significantly worse than it was prior to the COVID shutdown." 

Instead, they're taking a closer look at surge capacity and urging the public to do its part.

"We all hope that we reach a new and manageable plateau but we have no idea where that is, or if it's on the horizon," he said. "Continuing at the same trend of disease of new cases in our community has the potential to overwhelm our health systems." 

The 19 acute care facilities included in the East Tennessee region are as follows: East TN Children’s Hospital, Fort Sanders Regional Medical Center, Parkwest Medical Center, Turkey Creek Medical Center, North Knoxville Medical Center, University of TN Medical Center, Big South Fork Medical Center, Blount Memorial Hospital, Claiborne Medical Center, Jefferson Memorial Hospital, Jellico Medical Center, LaFollette Medical Center, LeConte Medical Center, Fort Loudon Medical Center, Methodist Medical Center, Morristown-Hamblen Medical Center, Newport Hospital, Roane Medical Center and Sweetwater Hospital. 

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