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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / U.S. Army National Guard 2nd Lt. Richard Sailors welcomes a vehicle at the Alstom COVID-19 testing site on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

At least 19 Tennessee National Guard members have been deployed to two private hospitals at opposite ends of the state to aid with COVID-19 response in order to relieve hospital medical staff — a result of an executive order issued by Gov. Bill Lee last week.

Currently the Tennessee National Guard is providing 11 staffers at testing sites operated by Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare in Memphis, freeing health care employees to work directly with patients, according to a spokesperson for the guard.

Eight guard staffers are now providing COVID-19 testing at four urgent care centers operated by the Ballad Health hospital system in northeast Tennessee. The centers are in Kingsport, Johnson City, Elizabethton and Bristol.

The governor's executive order allows trained National and State Guard members to be dispatched to hospitals to "reduce system capacity strain resulting from COVID-19."

Guardsmen and women with the appropriate skills can perform COVID-19 testing, provide nursing and other hospital services and operate ambulances under Lee's order. Hospitals and health care facilities must submit their requests in writing justifying the need for assistance. The adjutant general of the Tennessee National Guard and the commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Health then must jointly approve the requests.

The emergency deployment of the Tennessee National Guard at the two hospitals – there may be more to come – marks a new phase in the COVID-19 pandemic as hospitals across the state see rising numbers of patients straining the ability to provide adequate staffing and medical care.

Elective surgeries at Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare have been cut to 50% of capacity amid rising numbers of patients. At Ballad Health, which operates some of the only hospitals in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia, hospital officials have reported record numbers of inpatient COVID patients in hospital beds and in critical care each week in November and December. Ballad Health ordered its second mobile morgue last week as well as halting all nonemergency elective procedures.

About 350 members of the National Guard have already been activated to assist in the state's COVID-19 response, according to a spokesperson. Before now, personnel have worked to assist the Department of Health at mobile COVID-19 testing sites, primarily in rural areas of Tennessee.

Read more from Tennessee Lookout.

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