What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Tennessee hospitals near capacity, with ‘mixed messages’ complicating COVID fight

Tennessee has been hit especially hard as of late by the coronavirus. While it's numbers are lower than those in other states, it has had the highest rate of new cases and infections twice this week, and some hospitals are nearing capacity. Stephanie Sy spoke with Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke to learn more.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    One state that has been hit especially hard recently by the rise of COVID cases, and has gotten a lot less attention nationally, is Tennessee.

    While its numbers are lower than those in larger states, Tennessee has had the highest rate of new cases and infections in the country twice this week. Some hospitals are nearing capacity of what they can handle.

    Stephanie Sy has this update.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Judy, just to underscore that point, at least 25 Tennessee hospitals had completely full ICUs last week.

    And the main problem when we talk about capacity is staffing. More than 3,000 Tennesseans are currently hospitalized from COVID. The state reported more than 4,400 new cases and 133 deaths yesterday. And more than 6,200 people have died since the pandemic began.

    Chattanooga is seeing its share of all of this, unfortunately.

    And Andy Berke is the mayor. He joins me now.

    Mayor Berke, thank you so much for being with us.

    How are things in Chattanooga? And what is your greatest concern right now?

  • Mayor Andy Berke:

    Well, the greatest concern is the really difficult times that we're going to see over the next 60 to 90 days, as more people are indoors, as we continue to see the holiday season play out, and what is going to happen there.

    We're seeing deaths escalate here on a very large basis. And we have to be concerned for our hospital capacity as we move forward.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Well, I want to get to that.

    But you do have a local mask mandate in place there. What else are you doing to contain the spread there in your city?

  • Mayor Andy Berke:

    Well, we really have restricted powers for city mayors.

    So, there aren't additional measures that I can put in place. For the most part, we're talking about campaigns and public statements. But the state as a whole has preempted local mayors from making those kind of adjustments. So, we really have to rely on state policies.

    And on the information front, people are hearing different things from the national level to the state level to local level, so we really don't have consistent messaging.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Has that been frustrating for you? I know you have been critical of the fact that Governor Lee there has not issued a statewide mask mandate.

    There are also all these exemptions for gatherings, including for funerals and weddings and, of course, places of worship. With the current policy, is Tennessee going to be able to get a handle on COVID-19?

  • Mayor Andy Berke:

    We haven't had a handle on it. We're number one in the — not just in the country, but in the world right now.

    And this is very disturbing to me, to the people I serve. Our first duty is to try to keep people safe, to make sure that they have a way to live their life safely and in a healthy fashion. We're not doing that right now.

    So, we have got to make sure that this time between now and as we see the vaccine rollout start to get to scale, where we can make sure that more people can make it through these difficult weeks.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    You mentioned health care workers. And, as we reported, more than two dozen hospitals in your state have full ICUs right now.

    Is that what you are seeing in Chattanooga? And what are front-line workers telling you?

  • Mayor Andy Berke:

    Well, every week, we have a meeting, a task force meeting that has the heads of all the hospitals.

    As part of that, what I hear every week is, our employees are stressed. They're tired. They're really worried about what is going on. And the issue is not about the number of beds or space. It's always about personnel. Do they have the people that they need to serve the COVID patients, but then, on top of that, all the other sick individuals they're seeing?

  • Stephanie Sy:

    I know that you and other state officials have been encouraging people not to gather beyond their immediate families.

    But with Christmas around the corner, is that message sinking in? And, if not, why?

  • Mayor Andy Berke:

    Well, I hope so. And I am going to keep saying that message. I'm going to live that message.

    But I do think that there are mixed messages that people get from seeing policies that don't restrict that kind of movement. We also see from the — again, from the top, from the president of the United States on down, different kind of messages.

    And the most important thing is, we need across parties, across governments, everybody to be saying the same thing, so that, no matter which news channel you watch or which trusted messenger you get your information from, that you hear, stay in your home unless absolutely necessary, and do not socialize with people from outside your immediate household.

  • Stephanie Sy:

    Mayor Andy Berke, we're certainly wishing you and other Tennesseans a happy and safe holiday. Thank you so much for joining us.

  • Mayor Andy Berke:

    Be safe.

Listen to this Segment