TENNESSEE, USA — Leaders from East Tennessee hospitals gathered virtually on Wednesday to discuss the realities of the region’s healthcare system as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to spike.

A White House report listed Tennessee as the worst in the country for COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths per 100,000 people.

From stretched staffing to limited ICU beds to rising numbers of patients on ventilators, the hospital leaders said all of these challenges are affecting the care they are able to provide to all patients — not just those with COVID-19.

Dr. James Shamiyeh with UT Medical Center said this surge “is different without question than the winter surge,” and it’s creating a domino effect.

“If this many patients are on a ventilator or breathing machine in the ICU, that means that sicker patients than normal are outside the ICU,” Shamiyeh said.

He said it’s not a matter of creating more ICU beds or getting more ventilators. ICU beds require staff with a certain level of expertise, and not all ventilators offer the same kind of care.

The hospital leaders agreed staffing poses one of the greatest challenges.

“We’re all working together as best we can to help take care of folks, but there is no more staff to bring in,” Naramore said.

Dr. Mark Browne with Covenant Health asked for the community to be understanding with the hospitals’ situations and not to go to the hospital unless it’s absolutely necessary.