NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee hospitals that are being inundated with COVID-19 patients are struggling to find facilities where they can transfer sick people even in neighboring states, according to frontline doctors from the state that has surged into the top two nationally for most new coronavirus cases per capita.

Dr. Laura Lyons, an emergency room physician in Sumner County, said Wednesday that in the last week she has seen a COVID-positive patient with low oxygen who needed a bed transferred to Kentucky, then a critically ill patient having a diabetic complication had to wait 10 hours in the emergency department before an intensive care unit bed became available.

There were no beds in Tennessee, Kentucky or northern Alabama for a colleague's COVID-19 patient, who was at risk of being put on a ventilator, Lyons said.

Lyons stressed that emergency departments won't turn away patients or send people home when doctors think it's unsafe. But she described the consideration of some somber options.

“We’ve now had to look at sending people home with oxygen instead of admitting them to the hospital because we don’t have anywhere to put these patients unfortunately,” Lyons said in the video conference call with two other physicians.

The doctors have for months called on Republican Gov. Bill Lee to shift to a statewide mask mandate, beyond his policy that counties decide whether to require people to wear masks in public to curb the virus. Only a dozen other states lack a statewide mask requirement. Lee has contended that mask wearing is a matter of people taking personal responsibility.

The call from former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee became even more dire. The heart and lung transplant surgeon pointed out Tuesday on Facebook that rural regions without mask mandates are seeing many more cases per capita than the larger metro counties where masks are required.

Likewise, a Vanderbilt University study found last month that Tennessee counties that have not required wearing masks in public were on average seeing COVID-19 death rates double or more compared with those that instituted mandates.

“We are quickly losing this war and our hospital capacity is now threatened,” Frist wrote. “The vaccine will not help us in time for this surge. We need leadership at the state level (and county level) to act.”

Over the past two weeks there were 1,369 new cases per 100,000 people in Tennessee, which ranks second in the country for new cases per capita, according to researchers at Johns Hopkins.

The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in the state saw a huge jump from 4,904 on Dec. 1 to 8,304 new cases a day Tuesday. Deaths, meanwhile, have grown from a 7-day rolling average of nearly 38 a day on Dec. 1 to 72 a day on Tuesday.

Tennessee plans to tap into about 56,500 COVID-19 vaccine doses for hospital employees starting Thursday.


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