Hamilton County hospitals see record-high COVID-19 patients

Numbers show low bed availability, but officials say surge facility not yet needed

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / CHI Memorial is seen from Missionary Ridge on Friday, March 27, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Hospitalizations from COVID-19 in Hamilton County hit new records repeatedly this past week - including a single-day spike to 114 Thursday - as the county continues to face the most severe outbreak of the global pandemic so far.

People in the hospital with the virus, a key metric for understanding the severity of the outbreak, have trended upward in the county since the beginning of the month and are now higher than during the early part of June, which was the deadliest month for the county so far.

The record high for hospitalizations has been broken four times this week, following other single-day increase records in Hamilton County and Tennessee. However, the total number of hospitalizations includes those now being treated for the virus as well as people at the hospital awaiting test results for suspected infection - a change in reporting from earlier in the pandemic, when hospital data separated "patients under invitation" from those with confirmed COVID-19.

Daily hospital capacity data released by the county Friday showed five available intensive care unit beds across Hamilton County's three major health systems - Erlanger, CHI Memorial, and Parkridge - the lowest number of available ICU beds reported since the county began releasing those numbers in April.

However, that number alone can be misleading because it represents the number of beds available that are currently staffed and not the actual number of beds, said Lisa McCluskey, vice president of marketing and communications for CHI Memorial Hospital. Nurses are on call if a greater need arises, she said.

Officials from the three hospitals say the recent spike in COVID-19 patients is not enough to activate surge plans or to use the proposed Alstom site for overflow capacity, though discussions have begun among county leaders.

"At the pandemic's onset, Parkridge Health developed a surge plan for how we would triage, admit and treat an influx of patients suspected of having or diagnosed with COVID-19," said Michael Ferguson, Parkridge Health System spokesman, in an email. "This plan allows us to significantly expand capacity across Parkridge Health hospitals in the event of increased numbers of patients with the disease. We have not yet had to activate our surge plan, but we remain prepared and are carefully monitoring the situation."

Officials from CHI Memorial and Erlanger Health System echoed similar sentiments.

On Friday, the city of Chattanooga announced it will assist the Hamilton County Health Department in issuing citations for violations of the countywide mask-in-public directive.

Citations should be a last resort, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke said during a Friday news conference. The recent spikes in cases, deaths and hospitalizations have been concerning, he said.

"This is devastating to us," Berke said. "We need those numbers to decline. We have to take the steps that are necessary."

The health department announced a new death Friday - a white male between 51 and 60 years old - bringing the county total to 40.

The department also reported 104 new infections Thursday, bringing the county total to 4,043. Hamilton County is averaging 113 new cases a day in the past week, the highest average the county has experienced since the pandemic began. On Friday, there were 12 people receiving ICU care.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at [email protected]

Contact Wyatt Massey at [email protected] or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.