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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Physician's assistant Mia Malin checks in on occupational therapist Cori Cohen as she works with a patient inside the COVID intensive care unit at Erlanger on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, in Chattanooga.

Tennessee activated the National Guard on Monday to help hospitals across the state with capacity and staffing issues as the delta variant continues to drive a spike in caseloads and hospitalizations.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, commissioner for the Tennessee Department of Health, said the state is also using federal relief money to help out with staffing concerns as some hospitals stop elective procedures or set up triage units outside their physical buildings since the emergency departments are overwhelmed.

The moves come as Tennessee faces an unprecedented spike in COVID-19 hospitalizations. While the number of statewide hospitalizations has not surpassed the peak of the winter surge, the sharp uptick in recent weeks is unlike anything the state has reported previously.

Piercey said the previous record for COVID-19 hospitalizations for an entire month was November 2020, and it was in the 900s. Only halfway through August, the state has already hit 1,023 hospitalizations, she said.

"So we've already had more hospitalizations in the first half of August than we had in any other total month in the pandemic," Piercey said.

Spokespeople for CHI Memorial and Parkridge Medical Center said they were not aware of plans to use National Guard members in area hospitals.

"At our Parkridge facilities we have the bed capacity, staffing, supplies and equipment we need at this time," said Jamie Lawson, director of public relations at Parkridge, in a statement to the Times Free Press. "Our hospital leaders are continually monitoring the situation closely and continue to plan by assessing resources and support to ensure we remain able to meet the needs of the community."

Erlanger Health System did not respond to a request for comment Monday.

A Friday report from the Tennessee Department of Health stated 10% of hospital beds and 7% of intensive-care unit beds in the state were available. The National Guard, including members with medical training, will help out at hospitals with lower-level or administrative work to allow existing health care staff to spend more time treating patients, Piercey said.

On Monday, Piercey again emphasized that vaccination was the best available tool for preventing a serious infection or death from COVID-19. Between May and July, 88% of hospitalizations and 94% of deaths were among the unvaccinated, Piercey said.

Most of the people who were vaccinated and were hospitalized or who died from an infection were immunocompromised to some degree, Piercey said.

Last week, the Food and Drug Administration approved a third dose booster shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna vaccines for people who are immunocompromised. Piercey said people who think they may qualify should talk to their doctors, and booster shots are available through the local health department or a local pharmacy. Proof of eligibility is not required, Piercey said.

On Monday, the Hamilton County Health Department revised its guidelines to include the booster shot. The county health department said in its announcement there is not enough data to determine whether an additional shot is necessary for those who received the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

(READ MORE: Masks are back in Hamilton County Schools, but not for some)

The Hamilton County Health Department reported 209 new COVID-19 cases, 195 hospitalizations and 58 people in an intensive care unit on Monday. The latest hospitalization total was the highest it has been since Jan. 15.

Problems with staffing — either from health care workers getting sick or needing to quarantine after an exposure, or from workers leaving the industry — are stressing local health care systems already struggling to balance continuing typical health procedures with the latest COVID-19 surge.

"When you have a kind of already full hospital with staffing and worsening staffing concerns on top of that, when you put extra COVID patients on top of that, that really tips the scales in a lot of the situations," Piercey said.

The spread of other respiratory viruses not typical for this time of year, particularly respiratory syncytial virus, has caused an increase in pediatric hospitalizations, though Piercey said the vast majority of children hospitalized in Tennessee were not there because of a COVID-19 infection.

Karen Long, communications manager for CHI Memorial, said the hospital is still conducting elective procedures.

"The COVID-19 pandemic has placed a strain on health care systems across the nation and around the world," Long said in a statement to the Times Free Press. "Chattanooga has not been spared this fate, with our local health care centers struggling to fill jobs as part of a national health care worker shortage. Staffing is lower than before the pandemic began and is likely to remain at this level for some time."

Piercey urged anyone who has symptoms, whether vaccinated or unvaccinated, to get tested and stay home.

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

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