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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Mayor Jim Coppinger speaks during the press conference Tuesday at the Hamilton County Health Department. Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger renewed a mask mandate through Nov. 22 for the county on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger is calling for former or retired health care workers to return to the work force as a way to alleviate strain on local health care facilities and prepare for an anticipated post-Thanksgiving COVID-19 influx.

Coppinger said the goal is to supplement on a local level what Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee, the Tennessee Hospital Association and other industry groups are doing to boost the health care work force amid nationwide staffing shortages and coronavirus surges.

"We've seen a pattern historically where you have a holiday like we just had, and then anywhere from five to 14 days later, here comes more and more people positive. And unfortunately, of that group, a certain percentage of them end up in the hospital," Coppinger said.

Hospitals across Tennessee already had little or no bed availability and were having to divert patients to other locations — which were also filling up fast — heading into the holiday weekend, according to Dr. Wendy Long, president and CEO of the Tennessee Hospital Association, who spoke during a news briefing last week.

Although Chattanooga has not reached that point, Coppinger said local hospitals and long-term-care facilities could use extra nurses, medical assistants and respiratory therapists to fill basic clinical and administrative roles so that regular staff in those jobs could get needed relief or work in the COVID-19 units, he said.

"We're not asking them to sign up to tend to or treat COVID patients," Coppinger said. "They could fill in positions for nurses that are in hospitals or long-term-care facilities to let those nurses be treating the COVID patients."

Mark Ericson, deputy director of the office of Hamilton County Emergency Management, said that office will collect contact information for those who are interested in helping and then relay it to local hospitals and long-term-care facilities. Facilities will determine if a person potentially could offer assistance and reach back out to them individually.

The county will be launching a social media campaign to generate interest, Ericson said. While they don't have a goal for how many people they want to recruit, he said, some people have already reached out to assist.

"Even if just one person signed up, that's one person that's helping," he said, adding that people who are interested can call 423-209-5400 or email hamiltoncountyeoc@hamiltontn.gov.

In addition to recruiting more staff, Tennessee hospitals are converting other hospital units to ICU beds, doubling up patient rooms, increasing patient-to-nurse ratios, and retraining and reassigning providers from administrative and outpatient roles to inpatient care to make room for more patients.

Other facilities stopped or scaled back on elective surgeries throughout November. This week, Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare and Baptist Memorial Hospital in Memphis and Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville joined in opting to pause or delay at least some of their elective surgeries.

Rae Bond, chair of the Joint COVID-19 Task Force here, said stopping elective procedures is a decision that Chattanooga hospitals hope they don't have to make.

"That is why it is so important for us to double down on all the safety precautions and to avoid group gatherings and all of the things that are making our numbers tick up right now," she said during a news briefing Tuesday. "That is always a possibility, if things get bad enough and the hospitals become too overwhelmed. Nobody, absolutely nobody, wants that."

On Tuesday, the Hamilton County Health Department reported 466 new COVID-19 infections, the largest single-day increase to date — though the numbers could reflect a backlog presented after no new data was reported on Nov. 26 and 27 because of Thanksgiving. Over the past seven days, the county is now averaging 237 new cases a day, a record, and a positivity rate on new tests of 14%.

There were 125 people hospitalized in Hamilton County with the virus on Tuesday, according to the health department, and 30 people in intensive care.

The health department also reported three new Hamilton County resident COVID-19 deaths.

(READ MORE: November was the deadliest month for COVID-19 in Hamilton County)

The health department issued guidance for those who gathered with non-household members over the holiday, saying in a news release Tuesday, "it is safer to assume you were exposed and to act accordingly than not."

The release urged residents who gathered to take the following precautions: reduce contact with others for two weeks, or ideally, quarantine for 14 days after your last exposure to the non-household members; avoid any contact with older adults or people with chronic conditions; always wear a mask and observe social distancing; monitor yourself for COVID-19 symptoms and get tested as soon as symptoms occur; if no symptoms occur, wait at least five days from your last exposure to get tested; remember that even with a negative test, the risk of developing COVID-19 will last the full 14 days after exposure.

Bond said turnaround time for testing is now improving, and most people are getting their tests back within about three days.

Starting Wednesday, Dec. 2, the health department's COVID-19 testing site at the Alstom Plant on 1125 Riverfront Parkway will operate from 10 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every day of the week.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com or follow her on Twitter @ecfite.

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