NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The Tennessee State Department of Health says if people don’t change their behavior soon, we’re projected to see another huge surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations after Christmas.

State Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey says Tennessee currently has the highest COVID-19 infection rate in the country.

During a Sunday press conference call, Dr. Piercey said Tennessee’s new infections are 40 percent higher than the national average and our active case count has grown by more than two thirds in the last week.

“The dramatic increase that we’ve had in recent cases is almost certainly due to the Thanksgiving surge. What happened, and what we’re afraid is going to happen over Christmas, is that there have been multiple household gatherings where thousands of people have been infected. Most of them were unknowingly infected due to A-symptomatic spread,” Dr. Piercey said.

Dr. Piercey says the exponential increase in cases over the last few weeks has also driven an equally startling rise in hospitalizations.

Right now COVID patients account for 25 percent of all in-patient beds state-wide and 40% of all ICU beds state-wide. There are almost 3,000 hospitalized patients with COVID and about 750 are requiring ICU care.

“We’re running out of options,” Dr. Piercey said.

But it’s not beds and space that’s the problem. It’s the staffing.

“The issue is not with physical space and physical capacity. In fact, hospitals have more space that they can use. They could turn operating rooms or recovery rooms into ICUs. They could free up additional spaces to put regular patients. The problem is that they don’t have staff to do that,” Dr. Piercey.

Dr. Piercey says the state has provided up to 51 million dollars of available hospital staffing assistance grants. That’s money that hospitals can use to cover staff overtime or bring in more workers. They’ve also brought in medically trained National Guard members and contractors.

“All the money in the world can’t buy more staff. If the staff is not available, that money will only go so far,” Dr. Piercey said.

What’s clear is that Dr. Piercey says we must change our behavior over the next few weeks to preserve access to hospitals and emergency care resources. This includes care for things other than COVID-19, like cancer treatments and car wreck injuries.

The Tennessee Department of Health is urging people not to host holiday gatherings with anyone outside their immediate family or people they live with. Dr. Piercey says you should also mask up when you leave your home.