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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Retail Manager Nicole Jennings walks past a sign requiring masks to be worn inside the store while bringing a curbside order to a customer at Bread & Butter Bakery on Wednesday, July 8, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19 in Tennessee and across the region continues to climb, with Hamilton County posting a single-day record of 71 coronavirus patients on Thursday.

Although Hamilton County's COVID-19 hospitalizations fell to 66 on Friday, that's still more patients than the previous single-day record of 65 patients on June 10. At that time, 21 of those patients were Hamilton County residents and the rest were from outlying counties. On Friday, 40 patients in local hospitals were from Hamilton County, and 19 patients were in intensive care.

Most people with COVID-19 recover without hospital care, but the increasing number of hospitalized patients is the direct result of accelerated COVID-19 transmission across the state, experts say. On July 8, Tennessee posted its single highest case count to date, with more than 2,400 new cases reported.

"As mobility increases, it is not unexpected that virus transmission will increase and lead to increased hospitalizations. In other words, as more people move around, visit businesses and places of interest, and are closer to more people, transmission of the virus becomes more likely," researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center said in a report released Thursday.

The report found that coronavirus-related hospitalizations in Southeast Tennessee increased 40% from July 1 to July 8, and said Tennessee is on track to reach 1,000 COVID-19 hospitalizations statewide on or about July 14. On Friday, 842 patients were hospitalized across the state.

A concern with this rate of growth in cases and hospitalizations is that the health system may become too stressed to handle the patient load. Tennessee's top health official, Dr. Lisa Piercey, said at a news briefing on Wednesday that while there are fewer available hospital beds in the state, that number is fluctuating, which is normal.

"What is not fluctuating is the number of hospitalized patients. They're going up by the day. So we're keeping a close eye on that," Piercey said, adding that while nearly every large health system in the state is experiencing an increase in its patient load, the situation is not critical.

Dr. Jay Sizemore, an infectious disease specialist and member of the local COVID-19 Task Force, spoke about the rise in hospitalizations at an Erlanger Health System Board of Trustees meeting on Thursday evening.

"It continues to be a monumental effort as the numbers increase," he said. "We're continuing to cohort our infected patients on specific units. Our testing and our [personal protective equipment] supplies remain adequate. We expect the numbers to at least either remain steady or continue to increase over the next couple of weeks, and we stand prepared to take care of those patients."

As of Friday, 18% of both intensive care and regular hospital beds were available in Tennessee. Hamilton County on Friday had 66 regular adult hospital beds and 32 adult intensive care beds available.

Aside from capacity, Piercey said there's concern over maintaining adequate staffing levels in hospitals.

"They might have beds all day long, but if you don't have staff to work those beds, then you essentially don't have capacity," she said.

Officials from Hamilton County's three major health systems — Erlanger, CHI Memorial and Parkridge — said Friday that they're able to handle the current load.

"At this time, with the current level of patients, we believe the [number of] patients hospitalized at CHI Memorial is manageable. We are anticipating we may see an uptick in two weeks as a result of July 4th celebrations, but also hope the new masking mandate will stem the spread," CHI Memorial spokeswoman Lisa McCluskey said in an email.

Parkridge spokesman Michael Ferguson said the number of patients with COVID-19 at Parkridge Health "has remained fairly constant throughout the pandemic."

All three hospitals said they're not at a point of needing to scale back elective procedures but are monitoring the situation.

Becky Barnes, Hamilton County Health Department administrator, said during a news conference Friday that the county's decision to require face masks in public is a promising tool that should help slow the spread of disease, but it could take several weeks before new cases and hospitalizations start trending down, and she expects the situation will continue to worsen before it gets better.

Over the past week, Hamilton County averaged 68 new cases per day, higher than at any other point in the pandemic.

Barnes said later in an email that in some ways the county is better off now than it was early in the pandemic.

"We know a lot more about this virus, testing supplies are better, PPE is better," she said, adding that resources and staffing have also increased, there are emerging treatments and, potentially, a vaccine on the horizon.

However, in other ways, the situation is worse — deaths, illness, hospitalizations are all increasing, along with "pandemic fatigue" and a looming influenza season, she said.

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

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