Hamilton County reports record 27 COVID-19 hospitalizations, signaling outbreak is worsening

Staff photo by Tim Barber/ This is a look at the exterior of Memorial Hospital of Chattanooga, May 8, 2020.

The number of people hospitalized and in the intensive care unit in Hamilton County with COVID-19 is higher than at any other point during the coronavirus pandemic.

Data from the Hamilton County Health Department released Thursday revealed there are now 27 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, including 13 people in intensive care.

The number of people hospitalized has been in the double digits since May 8. Because Chattanooga is a regional hub for medical care, hospitalization data can include residents from outside Hamilton County.

The health department also reported 71 new people with COVID-19 on Thursday, bringing the county total to 843 and continuing a fourth week of rising new cases. Growth in cases here has landed Chattanooga on The New York Times list of regions with the steepest growth in cases, at No. 4 behind Fayetteville, Arkansas; Hanford, California; and Yuma, Arizona.

(READ MORE: Tennessee Gov. Lee to boost COVID-19 testing in Hamilton County after dramatic rise in positive cases)

Nearly half of all cases in the county - 401 of 843 - are considered active. More than 420 people have recovered and 602 have been quarantined at home, according to the health department.

Some experts say data on hospitalizations - which generally occur a week or two after infection - is a good representation of an outbreak's severity. That's because case count data is subject to how much testing is being done, and the vast majority of people with coronavirus don't require hospitalization. But the more severe an outbreak is, the more people with COVID-19 wind up in hospitals.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger has said on numerous occasions that hospitalization data is a key metric he follows to indicate whether stricter social distancing measures should be reinstated.

"We wake up every day and have discussions about where we are and where it's headed," Coppinger said on Wednesday. "We've been prepared for these who are getting sick, and at one point we were told we needed to have a surge hospital of 1,500 beds available, but we're nowhere near our regular capacity."

Since April 1, the county's Emergency Operations Center has tracked how many ventilators, general hospital beds and ICU beds are available in the three major health systems: Parkridge, Memorial and Erlanger. Overall, there are 1,000 general beds, 184 intensive care unit beds and 434 adult ventilators spread across those hospitals.

Hospitals had the most open beds on April 11. At that time, all elective procedures had been placed on hold to save room for an anticipated surge. There were 79 adult ICU beds, 373 adult general beds and 354 ventilators available that day, not taking into account pediatric beds and ventilators, which the county is also tracking. In desperate times, some pediatric beds and ventilators could also be used for adults, who typically experience far more severe cases of coronavirus than children.

On Thursday, Hamilton County reported 182 open adult hospital beds, 29 open ICU beds and 349 available adult ventilators.

Over the past week, the county is averaging 50 new COVID-19 infections a day, more than 10 times what it was averaging on May 1. After going more than five weeks without a death from the virus, the county has experienced two deaths in the past five days, bringing the county total to 15 deaths.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at [email protected] or Wyatt Massey at [email protected]