Dr. Katrina Green of Nashville at a recent meeting of the Joint Government Operations Committee. (Photo: John Partipilo)
Hospitals in Tennessee are filling up to capacity.
We are seeing the effects of the erosion of our nursing workforce combined with the consequences of letting the Delta variant run rampant in our largely unvaccinated state.
Last weekend, I was working in a rural hospital, treating sick COVID-19 patients that needed to be in the ICU. My small hospital had no beds so we started calling neighboring hospitals, then reached out to Nashville. Every hospital in the Vanderbilt, St. Thomas and HCA Tristar systems were filled to capacity. We reached out to Chattanooga, Jackson and Memphis. They were all full. We tried two Alabama cities and one in Mississippi with no luck. There were no ICU beds available anywhere.
This was beyond stressful. I was working in a busy ER, caring for other patients, as was my nurse. Yet we were also having to be critical care providers and spend hours on the phone attempting to transfer patients.
I was asked by a reporter if I thought we would be in a situation this dire in August. Back in December, when I got my first dose of the Pfizer COVID vaccine, I was hopeful and relieved. Having a safe and effective vaccine would mean the end of the pandemic and the most stressful year of my career as an emergency physician.
I could see light at the end of the tunnel. I expected people would line up in droves to get vaccinated when it came time for their turn. Unfortunately what we saw instead was the seeds of misinformation and partisan politics grow into mistrust in science and medicine.
To say I am disheartened is a vast understatement. I’ve given so much of myself this past year to do my part as a frontline doctor. I stayed away from my family for over a year to protect them, concerned I could pick up the virus at work and spread it. My husband and I stayed home for months at a time, only leaving the house for essentials and masking up every time. We cancelled vacations, missed out on weddings, parties and family gatherings. On Thanksgiving and Christmas, we connected with our family via Zoom.
Here we are four months after the vaccine has become available to everyone 12 years and older and only 40% of Tennesseans are fully vaccinated. Our vaccination rates for children are even worse. Only 29% of children in Tennessee have gotten their first dose. Nationwide those numbers are around 50%.
All Tennesseans need to get vaccinated. We should be doing everything in our power to protect children, especially those too young to be vaccinated. Children can get seriously ill and die from COVID. Those who don’t get seriously ill can spread the Delta variant, which is far more contagious than previous versions.
I attended the Metro Nashville Public Schools board meeting on Aug. 5 and supported their decision to require masks in schools and on buses this year. I was glad that several other school districts in Tennessee were doing the same. I watched the Williamson County Schools board meeting that has now drawn national attention in disbelief as physicians were harassed, hounded and threatened.
I never thought I would see the day that doctors would be vilified and harassed. Just last year we were hailed as heroes. People stood outside and howled at the moon at sunset to let us hear their support. They drove around hospitals honking and holding signs to show us we were not alone. The military did fly-overs and cities lit up their buildings especially for us. Now we fear for our safety when we speak up publicly for the health and safety of others.
How did we get to this place? How are people so upset about putting a piece of fabric over their face? Where did empathy go? Where is the concern for your fellow humankind? I am still in disbelief that caring for others is so hard for people.
I took an oath to do what is best for my patients, to “first do no harm” and wearing a mask will not harm anyone. It protects you and others around you from a deadly virus. We are still in the middle of a pandemic, the biggest public health crisis of our generation. What I and other healthcare professionals, public health officials and scientists are asking is but a minor inconvenience.
Gov. Bill Lee’s announcement that lets parents opt out of local school district mask requirements outrages me. We are already seeing outbreaks in several school districts without a mask requirement. Unless you are wearing an N95 like I do in the hospital, masks will only work as a mitigation tactic if everyone is wearing them. What the governor did was to erase any protection unvaccinated school children and teachers had against the Delta variant. Unmasked children in schools will further the spread of the virus, leading to further illness and more people needing to be hospitalized, further straining our already strained healthcare system.
I invited the governor to visit my hospitals in November during our last crisis, begging him to see firsthand how strained we were.
He never did. I doubt he ever will.
What we need is strong leadership, not someone who panders to a small but vocal portion of the public for political points. Tennesseans, please heed the words of your healthcare workers when we ask you to mask up and get vaccinated. It’s the only way this nightmare will ever end.
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