NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Areas of Tennessee where people are not required to wear masks in public are seeing sharper increases of patients in the hospital in recent weeks due to COVID-19, even as hospitalizations grow across the state, according to a new report.
Researchers from Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Vanderbilt University School of Medicine made the conclusion this week by categorizing each Tennessee hospital based on what percentage of its typical patient population lives in counties with a mask requirement.
Republican Gov. Bill Lee is allowing counties to decide whether to require masks, but has brushed off months of suggestions to require masks statewide. He has argued it's a matter of people taking personal responsibility.
“At the end of the day, personal responsibility is the only way. People will either choose or not choose to socially distance,” Lee told reporters on Wednesday. “Or choose to wear a mask or not, they will choose to make that personal decision. What we can do is to remind them is that personal responsibility can protect them.”
The hospital group with less than 25% of its patients from areas that require masks continues to see the highest rate of growth in hospitalizations since early October, the study found.
Compared to July 1, that group of facilities has seen more than 200% growth in hospitalizations. Hospitals with 26% to 50% of patients from mask-requiring areas saw about a 100% hospitalization growth compared to July 1. For hospitals in the 51% to 75% mask-requiring region range, there was a slight hospitalization increase, and those at about 75% had a similar hospitalization rate as on July 1.
The report also assures that mask wearing is not a “silver bullet," and that areas with mask requirements also have seen greater changes in community behavior and may have other virus mitigation strategies in place.
“We’ve seen a statewide increase in hospitalizations since early October, indicating that masking alone is not sufficient to curb further spread of the virus,” John Graves, director of the Vanderbilt Center for Health Economic Modeling, said in a statement Tuesday. “But it’s very clear that areas where masking requirements have remained in place have seen much lower growth in COVID-19 hospitalizations."
As of Tuesday, 54% of Tennesseans are under a county mask requirement, while 31% never faced one and 15% have seen their local requirement dropped since summer, the report states. Several of those counties of late have begun reinstating mask requirements.
“Hospitalizations are at an all-time high, we are setting new records every day,” said Wendy Long, president and CEO of the Tennessee Hospital Association. “What we need Tennesseans to do is to stop the spread, mask up and socially distance.”
Long added that concerns over staffing levels remain high as Tennessee competes with the nation for hospital workers.
Additionally, researchers analyzed cellphone activity to restaurants and bars in 89 of 95 counties, where the governor on Sept. 30 lifted restrictions on business capacity and operations. Six metro areas still can make their own business restriction determinations. The report says “mobility patterns track community infection rates more closely than they track the imposition or expiration of official orders” in those 89 counties.
In Tennessee, the seven-day rolling average of daily new cases has risen from 1,922 new cases on Oct. 13 to 2,601 on Tuesday. The seven-day rolling average of Tennessee's positivity rate has risen from 7.26% on Oct. 13 to 9.61% on Tuesday.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the virus can cause severe symptoms and be fatal. The vast majority of people recover.
Associated Press write Kimberlee Kruesi contributed to this report from Nashville, Tennessee.