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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Tennova Hospital is seen on Friday, Oct. 16, 2020 in Cleveland, Tenn.

Intensive care units in two Southeast Tennessee communities hit capacity in the past week as the number of COVID-19 patients continues to tax hospitals across the region and country, according to an analysis of newly available federal hospital data.

ICU beds in the city of Athens in McMinn County, Tennessee, hit 100% occupancy, and the city of Cleveland in Bradley County reached 99% occupancy, according to data from The New York Times, using reports from hospitals and from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Just last week, both towns were listed along with Scottsboro, Alabama, among the top 10 emerging coronavirus hot spots in the Times' ongoing tracking of virus data.

Federal officials said the newly released data will provide a more detailed picture of how COVID-19 is impacting local communities, since previously released hospital capacity data was aggregated at the state level, according to a news release from HHS.

"When data are aggregated at county or state level, the average across all facilities can mask what is happening at each local hospital," the release states. "... Using this new data, the public will have access to hospital-specific COVID-19 numbers to understand hyper-localized community impacts. This new level of transparency and increased access will accelerate COVID-19 insights and understanding."

Hospital capacity data captures a point in time and should not be taken to represent how many physical beds are available, because hospital capacity is more dependent on staffing levels than space. One traumatic event — such as a car wreck — can cause ICU numbers to spike, and those spikes appear more extreme in smaller hospitals with fewer beds.

Under normal circumstances, staff can be called in to help care for an influx of patients, but that's become more of a challenge as staffing shortages due to the COVID-19 surge plague most of the nation.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County mayor asks former health care workers to help relieve hospital, nursing home staffs)

At the hospital in Cleveland, Tennova Healthcare spokesperson Stephanie Austin said patient numbers there are continually monitored for changes throughout the day.

"As local cases have increased, there have been times our COVID units were at capacity," Austin said this week.

"Earlier in the year, we developed an emergency surge plan and we have been preparing for a surge for several months now," Austin said. "This plan includes using additional space in the facility to accommodate the needs, if necessary."

Officials at Starr Regional Medical Center in Athens acknowledge the rise of cases over the past couple of weeks, but spokesperson Brandi Armstrong said the situation is not as dire as the Times' list seems to indicate.

ICU BED OCCUPANCY

The following list shows ICU bed occupancy figures for towns in Southeast Tennessee, Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama, according to an analysis by The New York Times of data reported by hospitals and released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

SOUTHEAST TENNESSEE
Athens: 100%
Cleveland: 99%
Sweetwater: 94%
Winchester: 83%
Chattanooga: 81%
Dayton: 50%
Tullahoma: 28%

NORTHWEST GEORGIA
Calhoun: 97%
Rome: 94%
Atlanta: 81%
Dalton: 70%
Blue Ridge: 64%

NORTHEAST ALABAMA
Fort Payne: 92%
Scottsboro: 64%

NATIONAL AVERAGE
72%

"Currently, Starr Regional is treating fewer than six patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 in our hospital," Armstrong said Thursday in an emailed statement. She didn't say how close Starr Regional is to capacity.

"This number, as well as overall hospital capacity, is fluid and can change rapidly. Our team evaluates capacity across numerous metrics, including beds, personnel and supplies, throughout each day," she said. "We have capacity in our ICU and encourage our community to not delay receiving the care they need."

(READ MORE: Three cities surrounding Chattanooga appear on New York Times list of emerging COVID-19 hotspots)

Armstrong said the hospital is using regional resources and collaborative work with neighboring health systems to meet patient needs, while keeping an eye on virus numbers.

"We continue to closely monitor the prevalence of the virus in our community and build upon our hospital's emergency operations plan, which maps out – among many things – our escalation plan in the event of a surge of patients," she said.

"We cannot speculate on what could happen over the coming weeks and months, but we can assure everyone that we are working hard to plan for all of these scenarios and adapt our hospital operations to safely care for and support our community during this evolving pandemic," she said.

According to the Times' article and analysis of federal data, more than a third of Americans are living in communities that are running critically short on intensive care beds. Hospitals across the nation reported having fewer than 15 percent of ICU beds still available as of last week. One in 10 living in the Midwest, South and Southwest reside in an area where ICU beds are either completely full or fewer than 5% of beds are available, the Times article states.

For Chattanooga and Nashville, the list shows both at 81% ICU bed occupancy, while Knoxville's ICU bed occupancy is somewhat higher at 89%.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga area hospitals warned of looming COVID-19 crisis. Now their fears are coming true)

Tennessee Department of Health hospital capacity figures as of Dec. 9 show only 10% of the state's ICU beds available. In Cleveland/Bradley County, 303 people have been hospitalized and 43 have died of the virus. In Athens/McMinn County, 96 people have been hospitalized while 59 people have died of the virus, state records show.

Like Starr Regional and other hospitals, Cleveland's Tennova has worked to stock up on supplies and resources, but the best course of action lies in the hands of the public, Austin and Armstrong said.

"While we are prepared, we know community spread is the most common way people are becoming exposed. We know that people are experiencing COVID-fatigue, but this virus is very real. Please don't let your guard down," Austin warned.

"We strongly encourage the community to continue practicing social distancing, avoiding large gatherings, washing their hands regularly and wearing a mask or face covering while in public," Armstrong said. "We are at a critical point in this pandemic, and it will take all of us working together to help slow the spread of COVID-19."

Staff writer Elizabeth Fite contributed to this story.

Contact Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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