(CN) — As the delta variant spiders its way through Tennessee’s unvaccinated — infecting a few vaccinated people in its path — the state is faced with mounting concerns.
Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations are rapidly increasing, including among children, as the school year began this week. Hospital beds are running out and medical workers are burning out. There is a growing divide between the pro-mask and anti-mask sides. And the state’s 73 House Republicans have asked the governor to convene a special legislative session to “address misdirected and mandated responses to Covid-19 by local entities and officials.”
With delta’s high infection rate, far more people will need to get vaccinated in order to get ahead of the coronavirus, warned Dr. William Schaffner, medical director for the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases and professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville.
“One of the ways you can think about it is those firefighters fighting all those big fires out West. If they're getting ahead of a fire, good. That's great. But all of a sudden, as the fire moves off in a new direction, they have to change what they're doing, and we’ve had to do that [too],” he said.
Coronavirus cases in Tennessee children grew from roughly 1,800 new cases per week in mid-July to nearly 4,500 — a 150% increase — by Aug. 1, according to Tennessee Department of Health officials and data. They now make up 21% of all cases, which have also spiked to levels not seen since January.
The rolling seven-day average for new cases rose to 3,808 as of Thursday, eight times higher than it was on July 12 when the seven-day average was just 468, according to the latest department of health data. That number had already more than doubled from a June low of 174.
Covid-19 hospitalizations have also risen dramatically from 281 hospitalizations on July 12 to more than 2,078 as of Thursday — over 90% of which are among the unvaccinated, officials said. In children, that number grew from seven to 50 within the same timeframe.
Hospitals in Middle Tennessee have run out of ICU, emergency room or surgical beds, Geoff Lifferth, chief medical officer for Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin, wrote in a Facebook update.
“As an ER doc and a healthcare administrator, this past week has been one of the most exhausting and disheartening of my career,” Lifferth wrote.
Across the state, just 7% of UCU beds and 10% of floor beds are available as of Friday, according to the health department.
In Memphis, Fire Chief Gina Sweat warned that the city’s EMS system is overwhelmed due to Covid-19 emergency calls.
“First responders are running on fumes,” she said during a news conference Thursday. “There are times when you may call for an ambulance, and we may not have one available.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of children have returned to school this week, but only some school districts — including three of the state’s four largest metro areas — require masks.
The school board in Williamson County, the state’s richest county just outside Nashville, voted on Tuesday to temporarily require masks in elementary schools, sparking a large uproar from anti-mask parents. They threatened doctors, nurses and other medical experts, who are parents themselves and were advocating for mask requirements to protect children.
“We know who you are. You can leave freely, but we will find you,” one anti-mask protester yelled at a man who was in favor of masks trying to leave the meeting.
The outburst drew attention from President Joe Biden on Thursday.
“This isn’t about politics,” Biden said during a news conference. “This is about keeping our children safe … Our health care workers are heroes.”