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Tennessee's children's hospitals, including in Memphis, facing capacity challenges

The Tennessee Health Commissioner laid out what's behind the rise and planned adjustments to better gauge available staffed beds in the state's children's hospitals.

NASHVILLE, Tennessee — Tennessee's top doctor said Friday she's growing increasingly concerned about capacity challenges in children's hospitals across the Volunteer State, and especially in Memphis area.

Dr. Lisa Piercey, the Tennessee Health Department Commissioner, said pediatric COVID cases are on the rise, including the week of July 18th - with 1,800 cases statewide and 3,200 the week of July 25th.

She expects a similar increase this current week, especially since the Delta variant is more contagious.

"A lot of pediatric cases are in the west Tennessee region right now because of it's proximity to Missouri and Arkansas. But as we've seen throughout, now in our fourth surge, this is probably going to be across the state in the next few weeks," Dr. Piercey said.

Dr. Piercey said right now, the increased hospitalizations in children's hospitals are not independently linked to more pediatric COVID cases - but respiratory illnesses this summer that normally only emerge in the heart of winter, including RSV and certain types of flu.

"When you combine the unusually high amount of non-summertime infections with the normal summertime admissions that hospitals typically have, plus a shortage in staff, you really have a situation where you have capacity concerns," Dr. Piercey said.

The TNDH commissioner said workforce strains are also impacting children's hospitals.

"Physical space is almost never the issue - it's staffed beds," Dr. Piercey said. "Well I hate to say it, but health care is not immune to all the workforce strain that our entire society is seeing right now."

Starting Friday, all children's hospitals in Tennessee will begin putting out their utilization data - just like adult hospitals did during last year - as part of a detailed dashboard for publication in the coming days, to better gauge capacity in the different facilities. 

Dr. Nick Hysmith at Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis is confident there's enough staff and space to avoid any postponement of certain children's surgeries - at least for now.

"We haven't gotten to the point yet where we are having to cancel any of those procedures. And I don't expect that will be an issue the next several weeks or so unless we see a really unexpected jump in numbers," Dr. Hysmith said.

Dr. Hysmith is also hopeful the new Shelby County Health Directive starting Monday - that will mandate mask wearing in all public and private schools, daycares, and preschools - will stabilize and slow down the recent surge of younger patients.

"I think that's going to be huge for the next couple of weeks until we get a better handle on exactly what's happening," Dr. Hysmith said.

Dr. Lisa Piercey said there is good news in another area: vaccinations.

Tennessee reported a 57% statewide increase of first and second doses the past three weeks and a 90% increase of first doses the past two weeks.


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