Tennessee rural hospitals worried about capacity, staffing with holiday COVID-19 surge

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HARDIN COUNTY, Tenn. (WKRN) — In the last couple weeks, hospitals across the country started seeing the highest number of COVID-19 patients since the pandemic started and they’re expecting it to get much worse this weekend with a surge from the Thanksgiving holiday.

“It definitely worries me… I believe Friday, Saturday, we’re gonna really start to see some jumps,” Hardin Medical Center CEO Nicholas Lewis told News 2.

Rural hospitals like HMC are facing the biggest struggle, many of them calling medical centers in other counties and even states to help with their patients.

“Over the last few weeks we’re actually, there have been disproportionately more COVID patients per capita in the rural areas,” Dr. Eric Greenfield, who serves as the regional medical director of four rural hospitals with Ascension St. Thomas.

As of Wednesday, the state only had eight percent of its intensive care unit beds available, with 164 beds open out of more than 2,000.

“There’s been a huge influx of patients and they’re sicker than we typically have,” Greenfield explained.

Rural hospitals don’t have the advanced specialists, technology, or staffing to treat a high volume of sick patients. At HMC, Lewis has had more and more staff call out this week with concerns they had either been exposed to COVID-19 or have tested positive for the virus.

“There’s a scarce resource in the market and that scarce resource happens to be clinical people– your nurses, your physicians, respiratory therapist, all those– there’s a very limited pool and everybody is trying to pull from that pool,” Lewis said.

“More complicated patients that might need intensive care or cardiology or pulmonary, direct hands-on specialty care, we don’t have that so we have to transfer them, and that’s been a real problem because the receiving hospitals, the urban hospitals…. have been at or exceeding capacity,” Greenfield added.

While Ascension St. Thomas has bigger hospitals they can refer patients to, Greenfield said they’re sending them to parts of the state they normally wouldn’t.

Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville is one of the hospitals that will take these patients. A spokesperson tells News 2 they are receiving a steady increase of referrals right now.

“A good example is a physician had to call either 10 or 12 hospitals to find one to accept the transfer because they were at capacity, and that was at capacity either with rooms for patients, but more than likely staff,” Lewis exclaimed.

HMC is sending their worst COVID-19 patients as far as Mississippi.

“We send most of it to Jackson, to West Tennessee Health Care… but they have been at capacity,” Lewis said. “So then we have to look at transferring to Memphis or Nashville, now we have gone to Tupelo, Mississippi with it.”

Health professionals are calling on retired nurses and physicians to return to work around the country, but Lewis said that concerns him because these are likely older people in high-risk groups.

All of the doctors News 2 spoke with said the one thing that has proven to work and help keep rural hospitals afloat are face masks.

“It’s very, very scary, I just can’t over emphasize this,” Lewis said as he held up his mask.

If you live in a rural area and feel you need medical attention, doctors say don’t hesitate. You can still go to an emergency room to seek care.

COVID-19 in Tennessee

(This reflects what the TDH is reporting each day at 2 p.m. CST )

Stay with News 2 for continuing coverage of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

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