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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Clinical Staff Leader Nurse Ashley Engen pushes Taft Butcher in a wheelchair as he is discharged on the COVID floor at Erlanger on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021 in Chattanooga, Tenn.

This story was updated with additional information on Wednesday, Sept. 1, 2021, at 6:16 p.m.

Members of the Tennessee National Guard have been deployed to two Erlanger Health System hospitals in Hamilton County while all local hospitals are forced to scale back elective procedures as the worst patient surge of the pandemic to date pushes health care systems to the brink.

As of Wednesday, a record-high 321 people were hospitalized with the coronavirus in Hamilton County hospitals — up from Tuesday's record of 280 patients — according to data from the Hamilton County Health Department.

Of those patients, 67 required intensive care and 215 were residents of other counties across the region.

Lt. Col. Darrin Haas, spokesperson for the Tennessee National Guard, said Wednesday that 20 soldiers and airmen are arriving to provide administrative assistance at Erlanger Medical Center, and roughly 10 additional soldiers are going to help with administrative duties at Erlanger East Hospital.

Erlanger officials said via emailed statement the Guard members will be supporting staff in non-clinical hospital duties, such as answering phones, delivering meal trays and acting as guest service ambassadors.

"We cannot thank our men and women in uniform enough for serving our country as well as our local communities during this very difficult time. Our system continues to see exponential growth in COVID hospitalizations, and we encourage the community to do your part to help relieve this stress by masking, practicing good hand hygiene and getting vaccinated," officials said in the statement.

Chattanooga's other two hospital systems are not now receiving National Guard help but have submitted applications asking for assistance.

CHI Memorial spokesperson Karen Long said via email that the hospital would use the soldiers to help manage the hospital's monoclonal antibody clinic, which provides treatment to sick COVID-19 patients in an attempt to prevent the disease from progressing to the point that hospital care is needed.

Parkridge Health spokesperson Jamie Lawson said in an email that hospital leaders are "appreciative that this option is a possible resource."

Across the state, there will be about 200 soldiers assisting 16 different hospitals — including the two Erlanger hospitals — according to Haas.

Around 580 guardsmen are on the ground in 58 Tennessee counties helping with the COVID-19 response. Many of those soldiers are assisting with COVID-19 vaccinations at county health departments, Haas said.

Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger expressed his concern over the increasingly dire situation and the mental state of local health care workers during a county commission meeting Wednesday, saying, "We've just got to get a handle" on the pandemic and take care of fellow citizens.

"These health care workers, they're stretched to the max, and they are extremely important in our community. So if you see a nurse or a physician or anyone that's doing anything on the front lines, we need to be sure to thank them for what they do," Coppinger said. "I am concerned about their long-term positions, because if you're seeing as much death as they are — we've had over 555 people as of yesterday in our community that's passed away as a result of COVID."

Hospitals are scaling back some non-emergency treatments so that staff can be directed to help care for the overwhelming number of coronavirus patients.

"This is what we tried to stay away from as a community, because it means that people that do need care aren't able to get it right now," Coppinger said.

The record for single-day total hospitalizations was broken four times in the final week of August as health care workers told the Times Free Press of exhaustion and frustration amid the recent surge.

Contact Elizabeth Fite at efite@timesfreepress.com.

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