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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / A worker takes a sample at the Alstom COVID-19 testing site on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The Hamilton County Health Department reported 245 new COVID-19 infections and 115 hospitalizations with the virus on Wednesday, both record highs in recent months as the delta variant continues to cause a surge in Southeast Tennessee.

The number of new cases announced in a single day was the highest it has been since Jan. 19, when the county was in the midst of a deadly winter surge of the virus. Similarly, the last time the county had more than 115 people hospitalized on a single day was Jan. 28.

The Tennessee Department of Health said this week that more than 80% of new cases were linked to the highly contagious delta variant.

During a county commission meeting Wednesday morning, health department administrator Becky Barnes said local trends are troubling and case rates are not being offset by recent increases in vaccinations.

"I still don't see the data going in the right direction," Barnes said. "In fact, it continues to go in the wrong direction."

The increasing cases are surfacing fears about hospital capacity and staffing shortages in health care. During the commission meeting, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger and Commissioner Katherlyn Geter both mentioned meeting with or hearing from hospital officials in Chattanooga in the past week about such concerns.

As of Wednesday, there were 1,592 active cases in the community and 27 people in the intensive care unit because of the virus, according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department.

Coppinger said the local hospitals are near capacity and are unable to create much more bed space because resources are going to acute care or elective procedures. At the same time, burnout from the pandemic has forced many health care workers to leave their jobs.

"A lot of people have left the nursing industry, folks. A lot of people," Coppinger said. "They're stressed to the maximum, mentally, physically. I mean they are emotionally stressed to the max."

Geter urged people who are not getting vaccinated to talk to medical professionals about what they went through during the winter surge. The local health care system cannot withstand another blow like that, Geter said.

"Our hospitals, they cannot take it," she said. "We cannot go through what we went through this past March. We cannot."

Concerns about hospital capacity and staffing burnout were echoed in Nashville this week as Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said the struggle for hospital capacity is a statewide problem and could get worse in the coming weeks.

Half of the current hospitalizations in Hamilton County are county residents, a figure Coppinger said was disturbing. The county mayor has previously pointed to the ratio of county residents hospitalized as proof that mitigation strategies such as the countywide mask mandate worked. The mask mandate was lifted at the end of April as Coppinger said vaccines were widely available for people to take to protect themselves.

"Over 50% are our residents, and that means we are not taking care of ourselves," Coppinger said.

The county mayor also said Hamilton County's vaccination rate is lagging behind the statewide rate and urged people to take responsibility for themselves and their neighbors.

"Everything you need to do is there for you, readily available," he said.

On Wednesday, Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis said it was "frustrating and disturbing" to see case trends move in the wrong direction and things such as masks and vaccines become politically polarized.

"I trust the people of Bradley County to do the right thing and choose what is best for themselves when considering wearing a mask or to get the vaccine," Davis said in a statement.

Neither Coppinger nor Davis said their counties had any plans to implement a mask mandate.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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