(CN) — As Tennessee this week joined the few other states that have surpassed 1 million Covid-19 cases, children now make up more than one-third of active cases — a rate never before seen — while the governor has taken steps to limit local school districts’ power to implement certain safety measures.
Dr. David Aronoff, director of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said it is “impossible for me to fathom that one out of seven people in the state would have been diagnosed with this disease in such a short period of time.”
But cases and hospitalizations among children and adults also continue to rise, according to Tennessee Department of Health data. Just 6% of ICU beds and 10% of floor beds were available across the state as of Thursday. And now that the state is a few weeks into its latest surge, deaths have also begun to rise to rates not seen since the end of the holiday surge earlier this year.
Coronavirus cases in Tennessee have been steadily rising since mid-July when the delta variant began making its way through the state.
Infectious disease and health policy experts at Vanderbilt University warned in an Aug. 19 report that “Tennessee is now experiencing its highest growth in [Covid-19] hospitalizations than at any point in the pandemic.”
As of Thursday, the state sat at sixth in the nation for new cases per capita, according to New York Times data. The vast majority of those cases are among the unvaccinated. And with just 41% of its population fully vaccinated, Tennessee has kept one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country.
“Having this relatively rapid increase in cases, hospitalizations and deaths has been really disheartening and fatiguing and sad,” Aronoff said, echoing thousands of other physicians across the state. “It is particularly heartbreaking to be caring for patients who are critically ill and had not yet been vaccinated, because the vaccines really are capable of keeping people out of the hospital.”
While Aronoff is still in “response mode” — trying to do everything he can to help the sick — he and others are still dealing with feelings of sadness, frustration and fatigue.
He’s been moved to tears more times during this wave than at any other time during the pandemic, he said.
“I'm not sure what that's due to, but it may in part be because we're seeing younger people who are unvaccinated and, not infrequently, pregnant patients who are really sick with Covid-19,” he said.
Now that vaccines are available, Aronoff said it is “upsetting that we're struggling to get everybody who's eligible protected.”
And while children under 12 years of age are not yet eligible for the vaccine, “it is important for us to understand that the rate at which this disease is attacking children is influenced greatly by how well protected adults are,” he added.
Meanwhile, children have returned to school amid a growing divide between the pro-mask and anti-mask sides and a governor who is determined to keep children in school by not providing any plans for school districts to shift to remote learning if needed while signing an executive order overriding local school districts’ efforts to require staff and students to wear masks. State officials clarified late Wednesday that individual schools may shift to remote learning as long as it's not a district-wide measure.
“Our hospitals are struggling under the weight of Covid, but those hospital beds are filled with adults,” Republican Governor Bill Lee told reporters on Aug. 16 as he announced the order. “Requiring parents to make their children wear masks to solve an adult problem is, in my view, the wrong approach.”