While the Lebanon Special School District has implemented new measures to protect its students, teachers and staff against the surging COVID-19 delta variant, the state has set a new record for monthly hospitalizationsonth.
Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said Monday the surge in COVID-19 patients “really tips the scales” in hospitals even if there aren’t as many people currently hospitalized with the virus as there were during the January peak.
She said hospitals were already pretty full before the latest resurgence through the delta variant and the facilities are struggling with staffing shortages and and workers sick with COVID-19.
“An interesting and startling statistic is that in the first 15 days of August, we’ve had 1,023 hospitalizations,” Piercey said during the video news conference. “That is higher than any other full month combined in the pandemic, which was November and it was in the 900s.”
The Vanderbilt University Medical Center system, which includes Vanderbilt Wilson County Hospital system, and other Middle Tennessee hospitals are full or nearly so.
“Less than five weeks ago VUMC’s seven-hospital system was caring for a total of 10 patients admitted for COVID-19,” said VWCH Community Relations Director Traci Pope in an email Friday. “Throughout the Vanderbilt system, we have 120 COVID patients hospitalized as of today; 16 in Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt; 25 COVID positive patients in VWCH, eight of these are requiring ICU level support.”
And Thursday, the chief medial officer of Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin posted on the hospital’s Facebook page: “In Middle Tennessee right now it is impossible to find an empty, staffed ICU, ER or med/surg bed. As an ER doc and a healthcare administrator, this past week has been one of he most exhausting and disheartening of my career.”
The doctor, Geoff Lifferth, goes on to write: “The vaccines? They’re good. No, they’re not perfect. And yes, we are seeing more breakthrough infections with the Delta variant. But there’s a reason 96% of physicians got it — the risk/benefit analysis overwhelmingly favors the vaccines. Get one.”
That’s a sentiment echoed by Vanderbilt doctors, who have issued an urgent call for vaccination.
“Please, if you have not yet been vaccinated against COVID-19, do so as soon as possible,” the Vanderbilt statement reads. “Please take other precautions including wearing masks in indoor settings and avoiding large crowds.”
The surge in cases is hitting local schools. Last week saw the number of students quarantined in Wilson County Schools hit 925, while four staff members were quarantined. Seeing a similar increase, LSSD unveiled new protocols that come just short of mandating masks.
“As a district, we are appealing to you to do everything within your power to help us mitigate the spread of the virus so that we can give our students the very best opportunity to learn and grow,” the district said in a letter to parents Friday.
There are three categories in the district’s “adjustable safety protocols”: Masks optional, masks requested and masks in motion. Each protocol can targets schools, classrooms or grades. The district’s baseline status is mask optional. Schools in this category will move to masks requested if needed in response to a surge in cases.
“Teachers and students in ‘masks requested’ schools/classrooms/grades will be requested to wear masks during the school day for a temporary period in order to help mitigate the spread within the group,” says the explanation of masks requested.
The masks in motion protocol has teachers and students wearing masks when in the hallways, on buses or when social distancing in a classroom is not possible. Masks in motion is a transitional status, with those affected going to masks optional or masks requested depending on the trajectory of the outbreak.
As of Monday, the only school in the masks requested category was Sam Houston Elementary.
Statewide, about 2,200 people are hospitalized with COVID-19, with 43 of them children, according to the health department, compared to about 3,300 in January.
Piercey said that from May through July, 88% of hospitalizations and 94% of deaths were among the unvaccinated, while vaccinated hospitalizations mostly involved immunocompromised patients. Booster shots of the Moderna and Pfizer shots are now encouraged for immunocompromised people.
Piercey said the influx of coronavirus patients has led the state to offer some Tennessee National Guard medical personnel again to help staff overwhelmed hospitals. Many members of the Guard have been helping give vaccines, which has slowed down, she said. A similar offer was available in the winter but was not highly used, as some Memphis and Northeast Tennessee hospitals took the extra manpower, which generally includes teams of about a dozen extra people, she said. Many more hospitals are nearing that point in staffing needs this time around, Piercey said.
The seven-day rolling average of daily new cases in Tennessee has risen from 1,824 on July 31 to 3,879 on Saturday, while that rate for deaths has grown from about 8.6 deaths a day to 16.3 over the same timeframe, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers.
The latest wave of cases has motivated more Tennesseans to get vaccinated over the last month, going from 58,000 a week to now more than 100,000 — many of them first doses, Piercey said.
Still, Tennessee remains in the bottom 10 among states for vaccination rates. About 40.1% of the state is fully vaccinated, compared to the national rate of 50.7%; and 47.1% of Tennessee have received one or more dose, compared to 59.7% nationally, according to a federal vaccinations tracker.
The Wilson County Fair has always attracted huge crowds to Lebanon, but now that it’s also the Tennessee State Fair, that circle of attendees just keeps growing.
Nearly 200,000 people have already checked in through the front gates with that number expected to rise considerably as the week rolls on, according to fair officials. Considering the bleak weather over the weekend, those expectations stand a good chance of being met as the fair runs through Saturday.
During the sunnier hours of Saturday, many were out enjoying the rides, shows and events offered at the fair. One Murfreesboro man, Tim Morrow, said he’s a pretty avid fair goer, but that when he found out about the Tennessee State Fair connection, he “definitely wasn’t going to miss out.”
Another guest, Nick Konyha of Donelson, said he’d been to the state fair when it was in Nashville many times. Konyha also said he was no stranger to the Wilson County Fair. Contemplating on the collaboration between the two, Konyha said that it seemed to be beneficial to both sides. “For instance, it’s more organized,” he said, pointing to the streamlined parking set up.
Konyha shared this sentiment with several people at the fairgrounds who say the new bigger fair is better. One such individual, Chase Carillon, of Pleasant View, admitted he hadn’t been to the state fair a few years, but that “it being out here (in Wilson County) has been a big improvement.”
David Esquivel of Davidson County, described his Saturday as “a great time.” Esquivel said he had been to the state fair many times but, “This is a lot bigger than the state fair.”
“The food and all has just been fantastic,” he added.
One family that was out traipsing the fairgrounds Saturday had ventured in from Smith Grove, Kentucky. Kim Wyre said that her husband is from Lebanon, so they try to make the fair every year. Needless to say, they were disappointed when it was canceled last year, and so were happy to be back and to see how it had grown through collaboration with the state fair.
Both Jordan Mitchell and Kendell Ragsdale of Murfreesboro were also excited to see how much bigger it would be combined with the state fair. The two said what they’d seen and been able to do so far had not disappointed.
The Annual Future Farmers of America Country Ham Breakfast has traditionally taken place in Nashville, but settled into its new home in Lebanon much like other state fair programs when the event joined forces with the Wilson County Fair this year.
On the Tennessee FFA website, Wilson County Promotions Executive Director Helen McPeak said, “We are excited for the new opportunities that come with being the Wilson County Fair — Tennessee State Fair.”
“One of those opportunities is our support for the Tennessee FFA Foundation and their County Ham Breakfast. Wilson County Promotions has supported this event in the past by attending the Country Ham Breakfast and even buying one of the (prize-winning) hams a few years ago. This year, we welcome the Tennessee FFA Foundation and the Country Ham Breakfast as it takes place in the Farm Bureau Exposition Center during the dates of the fair.”
Part of the event features the auctioning of two champion country hams, awarded through competition at the fair. In 2019, the two champion hams sold for $6,000 each. This year, both hams nearly doubled that total with both going for over $10,000. Funds raised from the breakfast support the agriculture education and career and leadership development programs of Tennessee FFA
To celebrate the occasion, several hundred attendees, including members of the state’s congressional delegation, state legislators, city and county elected leaders, business and industry leaders, and others filled the Farm Bureau Expo Center’s main hall Monday, in anticipation of the guest speaker, U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty.
Hagerty, a Sumner County native and FFA alum, spoke fondly of his time in the program and reminisced about his days growing around agriculture.
Those nostalgic pleasantries wouldn’t be served up until after casting condemnation of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, a move former President Trump championed as recently as May, lambasting the “crisis at the southern border” and the “situations” in Iran and China. Hagerty did not mention the COVID-19 pandemic.
Hagerty praised the youth organization.
“I benefited from the FFA program,” he said.
The senator also said that he hopes to see these young people become leaders in their communities, and encouraged them to take their leadership wherever it is called upon.
“We need leaders like you at every level,” he said.
Other federal officials present included U.S. Rep. Mark Green, who mocked the wearing of masks in Washington during his time at the podium.
Wilson County Promotions Vice President Jimmy Comer was tasked with possibly the most important role of the morning. In keeping with the fair’s theme, he introduced a true “hometown hero,” by sharing the life story of Dr. David Gordon Petty.
Petty, who joined Comer on stage for the presentation, spent four years in the submarine division in WWII before returning to his home in Tennessee. He is the oldest living graduate of Cumberland University and a graduate of Vanderbilt Medical School.
After completing his degree at the latter, Petty went to back Smith County where access to medicine was limited. Petty soon became legendary his role bringing medical access to the people of Smith County, where he helped build the first hospital.
Comer said that before Petty helped build that the hospital, “He practiced medicine making house calls with his black bag like you see on TV.”
Remarkably, Petty’s commitment to public service has not waned in his old age. Comer shared a joke told by Petty, “Did you know you lose your license when you turn 100?”
Well, license or no license, the centenarian didn’t let it stop him from delivering ripe strawberries to folks in Smith County as recently as this past year, proving that one is never too old to serve, and that a true calling of service lasts a lifetime.