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East TN Medical Community Closely Watching Increase in COVID Deaths and Hospitalizations

video still/Knox County Health Department

Very few Knox Countians have died from COVID-19, but half of the ten confirmed deaths from the novel coronavirus happened in the past week, an acceleration local hospitals and the county health department are closely watching.

When the county’s five “traffic light” benchmarks were updated Wednesday, death rates were upgraded to “red light” status. The metric had been green until today.

Another closely-watched metric, hospitalization, was bumped from green to yellow. 34 Knox Countians were hospitalized Wednesday, compared to 19 the previous day. Figures for Knox and fifteen other East Tennessee counties show 56 percent of COVID patients are in intensive care, UT Medical Center’s Dr. Keith Gray said. The statewide average is roughly 33 percent. Of the COVID patients in East Tennessee ICU units, 64 percent are on a ventilator, “significantly different” than statewide figures, Gray said.

At present, 92 percent of ICU beds in East Tennessee hospitals are occupied. Hospitals say they can tap into extra “surge capacity” if necessary.

“We are not overrun with COVID,” Gray said. “[Cases] are manageable at the current time for our hospital systems, though we are remaining vigilant.”

East Tennessee hospitals are serving patients at near pre-pandemic levels, which requires space and personnel. Gray said hospitals don’t want to cancel elective procedures and routine health care, so they will be working on updated surge capacity plans that reflect current dynamics of routine and emergency care coupled with the rise in COVID cases.

“Our situation is very different and much more urgent than it was when I was here one month ago,” Gray said. “We all hope that we reach a new and manageable plateau, but we don’t know where that is or if it’s on the horizon.”

Knox County has crossed the threshold of 600 active cases, with 616 reported Wednesday. Case counts are a lagging indicator, delayed by the incubation period of COVID-19 and the time necessary to process virus tests. The county crossed the 500-active case mark Tuesday.