The number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Tennessee jumped 30% since Oct. 1, bringing the state to a near-record-high number of coronavirus hospitalizations heading into flu season.
Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said during a news conference on Friday that while new COVID-19 cases and the positivity rate for tests are going up, those increases are moderate in comparison to the spike in hospitalizations.
Piercey said the patient surge is due to the "penetration of this virus in our rural communities," which typically skew older and experience higher rates of chronic disease - factors that put residents at an increased risk for serious and fatal COVID-19 infection.
Tennessee's worsening outbreak drew attention from the White House, which issued a report this week saying that "a statewide mask mandate must be implemented" to curb the spread of COVID-19.
Gov. Bill Lee on Friday said that he will continue to leave the decision on whether or not to require face coverings in public to county mayors, most of whom have not taken that step.
Lee also said it's "hard to know" if his recent decision to lift restrictions on business and gathering sizes in the state was to blame for the increase in cases.
"Causation for case rises is very difficult to pinpoint, and what we are trying to do is to raise the level of awareness that people take personal responsibility, that people understand that wearing a mask is a very important thing to do, that washing their hands and staying apart is a very important thing to do," he said. "We do know that it's very serious and we need to take it very seriously. We also do know that we cannot continue to keep businesses closed forever. We know that we can protect lives and livelihoods at the same time."
Piercey said the average age for hospitalized patients in the state is 70 years old and those patients on average spend nine days in the hospital.
"It's not just a quick in and out ... these are pretty expensive stays that require quite a bit of medication, treatment and recovery," she said, adding that "if you're under 70, I don't want you to stop paying attention, because we know our older family and friends are getting it from those of us who are younger."
Although unwelcome news, Piercey said officials are "not panicked" by the situation. Hospitals are much more prepared now than they were in the beginning of the pandemic and in July - when the state hit its peak of 1,161 hospitalizations, she said.
As of Friday, there were 1,155 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in Tennessee, with about 11% of the state's intensive care unit beds available. There were 78 confirmed and probable COVID-19 patients in Hamilton County hospitals, but the majority - 49 patients - are from surrounding rural counties.
Stephanie Austin, a spokesperson for Tennova Healthcare-Cleveland in neighboring Bradley County, said in an email that the hospital has "seen an increase in cases over the past week" but remains prepared and safe.
Lisa McCluskey, spokesperson for CHI Memorial, said in an email that the hospital had also seen a rise in patients in the last three days.
"However, the number of cases is far from reaching surge level or equal to the July 16 and August 18 previous community highs," McCluskey said. "The mask mandate in Hamilton County is playing a significant role in stemming the spread of the virus in the urban/suburban areas where masking is more prevalent than rural areas."
The top places where COVID-19 patients now hospitalized at Memorial reside are Hamilton, Grundy and Marion counties in Tennessee and Walker County, Georgia, she said.
Officials from Erlanger Health System said in an email that "we have not seen a sharp increase in COVID patients as our numbers have remained stable for the past month."
After Hamilton County residents, Erlanger officials said most of the hospital's current COVID-19 patients are from Catoosa and Dade counties.
Parkridge spokesperson Michael Ferguson said the hospital's number of COVID-19 patients "has remained steady," and after Hamilton County, Parkridge was treating more patients from Marion County, as well as Walker County in Georgia and Jackson County in Alabama.
All hospital representatives said they have adequate capacity and supplies to handle COVID-19 patients, as well as others needing medical care.
"Now is the time to increase our vigilance as we are seeing a slight increase in new cases, and we are entering into the winter months when people are gathering for holidays and spending more time indoors," McCluskey said. "It is vital that we all strictly adhere to the use of masks and practice social distancing measures, if we want to avoid a resurgence."
Contact Elizabeth Fite at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.