NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Rural hospitals have been reporting increased numbers of COVID-19 cases coming into their emergency rooms and ICUs.
The St. Thomas system of hospitals saw increases across the board, though most major increases in hospitalizations happened in the Upper Cumberland area.
"At our McMinnville and Dekalb hospital, we are seeing a considerable amount of COVID cases through our emergency rooms and in our inpatient units," said Neal Kelley, regional president for St. Thomas Health.
Kelley said the hospitals are doing what they can to take care of patients efficiently. They're not in danger of becoming overwhelmed, but staffing changes are being made to help with capacity.
Also, Kelley said St. Thomas is a large enough health system that can afford traveling nurses or other staff in case of emergencies.
However, other hospitals in rural areas aren't as lucky.
According to Dr. Melissa McPheeters, research professor for Vanderbilt University Medical Center, some rural hospitals report beds filling quickly.
"Given that these counties were not hit initially, they are entirely susceptible at this point," said Dr. McPheeters. "So, the virus has found brand new vulnerable territory to spread from person to person easily."
Vanderbilt recently released a study of COVID-19 deaths and mask mandates across all Tennessee counties. McPheeters said it showed clear data mask mandates were working.
"When we look at deaths, we see that those counties that have never had a mask mandate have about twice the mortality rate of counties that implemented a mask mandate, even if they did that mask mandate a bit late. So, we look at early adopters and late adopters, and still, twice as many deaths per 100,000 as the counties with the mask mandate. So, clearly, there's an association with mask mandates," she said.
The good news is rural hospitals are getting access to some coronavirus treatments. Also, St. Thomas is part of the Pfizer vaccine pilot. So, they expect to eventually be among the first to receive vaccines.