Lee OKs use of National Guard in hospitals amid virus surge

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has authorized medically trained National Guard members to fill nursing roles, drive ambulances and perform coronavirus testing for hospitals that have been increasingly overstretched on staffing while they care for a climbing number of coronavirus patients.

The Republican's executive order Friday allows the adjutant general to send hospitals reinforcements from the Tennessee National Guard. The state is focusing on members who are actively assigned — including those serving in coronavirus testing roles statewide — not those currently serving in civilian jobs in health care.

The Tennessee National Guard currently has 353 people in COVID-19 testing roles, according to Guard spokesman Chris Messina.

State health officials declined to identify which hospitals have expressed interest, but said there's need statewide.

The state reports 2,485 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in Tennessee, with 14% of floor beds and 8% of ICU beds still available.

Tennessee reported another daily record in COVID-19 deaths Friday at 95, bringing the statewide total to at least 4,876. Tennessee's death count is the 18th highest in the country overall and the 27th highest per capita at about 70 deaths per 100,000 people, according to researchers from Johns Hopkins.

Over the past two weeks, the rolling average number of daily new cases has increased by nearly 645, an increase of 14.4%. Health policy researchers at Vanderbilt University's School of Medicine have cautioned it's taking more than a week on average for the state to report new COVID-19 cases from the date of positive tests, hampering the government and health care response.

The new executive order also gives hospitals more flexibility to assign licensed health care workers tasks beyond their normal scope of practice, as long as the state approves the facility's plan. Similar approved expansions were extended to inpatient psychiatric facilities, behavioral health residential centers and behavioral health crisis service providers.

It also removes more regulatory steps for hospitals, nursing homes and home health agencies to increase their beds or set up temporary COVID-19 treatment facilities.

Some Tennessee hospitals are again limiting nonemergency services. Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville said it’s deferring “select” nonemergent procedures, while on the other side of the state, Ballad Health is halting elective procedures at its East Tennessee and Virginia hospitals.

The governor, meanwhile, has continued letting counties decide whether to require masks.

Emily Nichole Egan, a nurse in the COVID-19 unit at Ballad Health’s Holston Valley Medical Center in Kingsport, issued a plea this week for people to take the virus seriously, wear a mask and stay home. She said she has held patients’ hands while they died because their family couldn’t be there.

“We’re losing more than we’re keeping,” Egan said in a video tweeted by Ballad Health. "I put an ungodly amount of people in body bags that I wasn’t prepared to do, that I wasn’t prepared to give up on a patient, but there was nothing else we could do. And we lost them.”

In Hamilton County, which includes Chattanooga, health officials are telling people who test positive to do their own contract tracing by calling people to tell them they were exposed. The health department also said it's no longer sending quarantine letters to employers.

“These changes in mitigation strategy are due to an increased number of positive cases in Hamilton County, an increase in testing, test result delays and a strain on computer reporting systems,” said Becky Barnes, the county’s health department administrator.

In Shelby County, which includes Memphis, health officials reported more than 3,350 active cases Friday. Hospitals in the county’s system report more than 90% of both acute care beds and intensive care beds are being used as hospitalizations rise.

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Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tennessee contributed to this report.

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Find AP’s full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic.