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Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Nurse Melanie Duquette puts on personal protective equipment at Parkridge Medical Center on Friday, August 27, 2021.

NASHVILLE — Dozens of frustrated hospital chief medical and chief nursing officers have issued a public plea to Tennesseans, warning their emergency rooms and intensive care units face becoming overwhelmed in the latest COVID-19 surge.

In a letter, the executives are urging residents "to protect your family, your health care team and your community by getting vaccinated and wearing a mask in public spaces."

The letter, released Friday, comes amid soaring COVID-19 infection rates in Tennessee and a day after Gov. Bill Lee doubled down to stand by his recent executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of school mask mandates.

Six top hospital executives from three hospital systems in Chattanooga, whose beleaguered staffs are on the front lines, signed the measure as state hospital emergency rooms and intensive care units risk being overwhelmed by the state's soaring new cases.

"We, the chief medical officers and chief nursing officers of hospitals across the state of Tennessee, are banding together in one unified voice to say that vaccination is safe and the most effective way to reduce hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19," said the letter, which was signed by 105 chief medical and nursing officers.

The letter goes on to say, "We urge all eligible Tennesseans to get a COVID-19 vaccine to reduce the spread of the virus and prevent future variants. As more Tennesseans get vaccinated, the number of patients needing hospitalization for COVID-19 will go down, allowing more capacity for all patients needing life-saving care."

They also say they "are frustrated that the simple steps that could greatly reduce the loss of life are not being taken by all Tennesseans."

Those steps include wearing masks and getting vaccinated.

Hamilton County-based hospital executives who signed the letter are:

— Dr. Donald E. Barker, interim chief medical officer at Erlanger Medical Center.

— CHI Memorial Chattanooga Chief Medical Officer Dr. Matthew Kodsi.

— CHI Memorial Chattanooga Chief Nursing Officer Rhonda Hatfield.

— Parkridge Health System-Chattanooga Chief Medical Officer Dr. Timothy Grant.

— Parkridge Medical Center and Parkridge East Hospital-Chattanooga acting Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Magill.

— Parkridge Medical Center-Chattanooga Chief Nurse Executive Deborah Deal.

Latest U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures on the agency's website early Saturday showed Tennessee now tied with Kentucky as having the nation's worst coronavirus infection rate per 100,000 people. The rate was 739.2 per 100,000 people over a seven-day period. A day before, Tennessee was No. 1 in the country with 790 infections per 100,000.

That's having a dreadful effect, according to the hospital leaders.

They warn the public that "currently, the delta variant is spreading rapidly across our state. Hospitals are quickly running out of beds and staff to care for the ill and injured, not just those with COVID-19, but those with injuries, heart attacks and other life-threatening conditions. Health care providers want to be there in your time of need, but we are asking for your help."

Vanderbilt University researchers warned in August the new surge was progressing and accompanied by an increase in the number of infections among children.

Last week, state Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey warned Tennessee hospitals were in "dire straits," with most COVID-19 infections occurring among the unvaccinated. Tennessee children are suffering a major surge in infections.

As Tennessee schools got underway in August, Republicans in the General Assembly were pushing for a special legislative session to prevent local governments from imposing mask mandates for school children.

Lee forestalled the effort by issuing an executive order that overrode any local mask mandates for schoolchildren by allowing parents to opt their children out of any such mandates.

A judge late Friday blocked Lee's order from taking effect in Shelby County until a hearing can be held on a lawsuit by parents of immunocompromised children.

During a state Capitol news conference Thursday afternoon, Lee showed few signs of backing off his position despite the surge in cases.

"I still believe that a parent is the best decider of what is appropriate for their child," Lee said. "That's been driving our strategy thus far."

Members of the Tennessee National Guard were deployed last week to reeling hospitals across the state, including to two Erlanger Health System hospitals in Hamilton County. All local hospitals have been forced to scale back elective procedures as the worst patient surge of the pandemic to date pushed health care systems to the edge.

As of Friday, Hamilton County hospitals set a record of coronavirus patients in intensive care, with 84. There were 10 new deaths, bringing the county's total to 565.

The number of official COVID-19 hospitalizations in the county hit 331 Friday, with seven other cases under investigation as possible coronavirus infections. Hamilton County residents accounted for 102 of the total hospitalizations. There were 296 new COVID-19 positive cases countywide.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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