Decline in COVID-19 hospitalizations has health officials optimistic, but cautious

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — Health officials say the peak of the latest wave of COVID-19 cases has passed through Knox County, noting in a press conference today that hospitalizations have dropped 20 percent during the past two weeks.

“As a result, plans are in place to resume elective cases soon, and those dates will vary by hospital system,” said Dr. Keith Gray, chief medical officer at UT Medical Center and spokesman for the area hospital systems.

Gray said daily new cases in Tennessee peaked Dec. 16-18. Statewide more than 11,000 new cases were reported. A day later, Dec. 19, Knox County Health Department announced 724 new cases were identified among county residents.

Those cases resulted in hospitalizations two weeks later when nearly 700 people were hospitalized within East Tennessee region. About 25 percent of those were treated in the ICU and of those ICU patients, 60 percent were on ventilators, Gray said.

“Since then, we’ve seen a significant decline in cases,” Gray said.

The KCHD benchmark for hospital surge capacity remains at red, Gray said, before warning everyone to maintain caution against what he called a “normalcy bias.”

A normalcy bias is a psychological term referring to a survival mechanism in the brain that leads people to disbelieve or minimize threat warnings, ultimately causing them to underestimate the likelihood of a disaster.

“Even with that decline we are at historic levels. We have 500 hospitalized in the region, whereas before December we were nowhere near those numbers,” Gray said.

Meanwhile, KCHD Director Martha Buchanan asked for patience from the community.

“Vaccines take time to roll out,” Buchanan said.

The department is not receiving regular shipments of the vaccine, but Buchanan does believe more will be available this week.

She pointed to the way testing was hard to find and then became widely available as the pandemic wore on.

“In the beginning, it was just the Health Department testing, now that’s not the case,” Buchanan said.

With Phases 1a1 and 1a2 completed at UT Hospital, the medical center is shifting to help the Knox County Health Department, Gray said.

“Right now its just us and the hospitals (offering the vaccine to the public at large),” Buchanan said, adding that her staff look forward to when drug stores and others can help vaccinate.

Buchanan said the department will soon begin contacting people for second doses. Anyone who has received the first dose will be contacted directly by someone with the health department.

Buchanan also said the department is developing an automated contact system to schedule appointments and follow-up visits.

“Please don’t call public information line now asking to be on this list, it doesn’t exist yet. We will announce when it is available.”

Gray said hospital group leaders continue to meet daily to look at capacity and discuss vaccination strategies.

“We remain hopeful and cautiously optimistic,” Gray said.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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