The rising number of hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 in the Chattanooga area is a needless tragedy that could have been prevented — and can still be curbed — by vaccinations, local health care experts said during a recent panel discussion.

"We know the vaccination is protective against hospitalization and death," said Dr. Matthew Kodsi, vice president of medical affairs at CHI Memorial Hospital. "We know it's a little less effective at preventing any disease with delta as much as it was with alpha, but we would see a drastic reduction in our hospitalizations and our mortality if we had a higher percentage of the population vaccinated."

During the conversation as part of the annual Champions of Health Care recognition, Dr. Kodsi joined Dr. Andrea Willis, senior vice president and chief medical officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and Dr. Charles R. Woods, CEO and chief medical officer for Children's Hospital at Erlanger Health System.

As the number of infected and hospitalized children grows, the impact of the virus on families is coming into sharper focus, Dr. Woods said.

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Staff file photo / Children's Hospital at Erlanger CEO Dr. Charles Woods speaks during an Erlanger Health System Board of Trustees meeting in 2019.

"We're seeing more children who are in the hospital that have lost a parent or a close caregiver to COVID," he said. "It does seem to hit families harder in some ways, maybe through genetic predisposition, and other factors, as well. That's a new wrinkle that we're dealing with that you might not expect."

In addition to the medical challenges, the emotional and psychological strain of this protracted crisis is significant, he added.

"It's compounded our typical issues of the human needs and sorrows we help address," Woods said.

In August, 40 people died of COVID-19 in Hamilton County, a number higher than deaths over the previous four months combined. Last week, 520 people were hospitalized in the Chattanooga region with COVID-19. At last winter's peak, that number was 360, Kodsi said.

Rampant misinformation on social media about the safety of vaccines has created a daunting challenge for health care providers, Dr. Kodsi said.

"We never in our wildest dreams imagined that the response we've seen in the public would occur, and that we would be honestly right back where we started last year, if not worse," he said.

About 46% of Hamilton County residents were fully vaccinated at the end of August, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department.

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Staff Photo by Sean McRae Loftin / Dr. Matthew Kodsi, vice president of medical affairs at CHI Memorial Hospital.

Combatting vaccine hesitancy is a critical element of health care work right now, Willis said.

"Where there are true elements of hesitancy due to mistrust of the health care arena, we do have an opportunity to try to address those root causes," she said. "What we do as individuals affects the entire community — I think we have to stress that message so much."

Dr. Woods addressed concerns people may have about the speed with which the vaccines were developed. The science behind them is not new, and has been in development since 2003, when SARS-1 struck, he said.

"A lot of work had been done, over a decade of work in terms of developing these vaccine platforms," he said. "These were not started from scratch in January or February 2020. There was a huge run-up to these, a lot of basic safety data looked at, and now we've had these doses administered to many many millions of people around the world, so we actually know more about the safety profiles of these vaccines than almost anything else this early in its use."

As the virus continues to spread, health care providers are seeing more young, otherwise healthy people suffering serious illness, Kodsi said.

"We are seeing young adults in their 20s, 30s, 40s, in critical medical conditions that we don't usually have in our hospital," he said. "We are seeing this really hit a younger population with mortality, chronic illness, all sorts of medical issues and repercussions of COVID that is not a normal part of the population we treat at that level in the hospital.

"If people feel they're young and they're healthy and it's not going to hit them, they need to think again, unfortunately," he said.

Contact Mary Fortune at Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

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Staff photo by Matt Hamilton / Dr. Andrea Willis, senior vice president and chief medical officer for BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, is shown in July.