A day of prayer and fasting has been Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s major response to his state’s record surge of COVID-19.
That was in October, and Tennessee’s rate of new infections kept rising to a level second only to Oklahoma, where Gov. Kevin Stitt held his own statewide day of prayer early this month.
Both prayerful governors refuse to impose a mask mandate despite pleas from a host of medical authorities and organizations.
At present, one of every 100 people in Tennessee is actively infected. The president of the Tennessee chapter of the American Academy of Emergency Medicine, Dr. James Parnell, notes one way that the infection rate applies to everyday living.
“You go in the grocery, there are probably 100 people there, and one of them probably has COVID,” Parnell told The Daily Beast on Wednesday.
The ill are flooding hospitals such as the one where Parnell works, Sumner Regional Medical Center in Gallatin, which is so full of COVID patients it cannot accommodate all of those who come in with other illnesses—the too seldom considered impact of the pandemic.
Out of roughly 20 people Parnell treated during an eight-hour shift earlier this week, three were non-COVID patients who would have ordinarily been admitted but were not because no beds were available. The closest facility that had a bed was out of state, and all three patients refused to be transferred.
Worries about what befell those patients stayed with Parnell, 37, after he had returned home to his own bed.
“These are things when you lay your head down on your pillow at night you think, ‘Oh no, what happened to that one? I hope they came back to get care. I hope they found someplace to get care,’” he said.
After he caught some sleep, Parnell sat down to write a letter to the governor describing the full impact of the pandemic on any and everyone in a hospital. He described each of the three cases that would not be included in the COVID-19 stats.
“Dear Gov. Lee,
I wanted to provide you with an update on my Emergency Department shift last night. With no beds in our hospital, the closest available hospital with beds available for transfer was out of state. A story of 3 patients as an example of how this affects even non-Covid patients.
Patient 1: Pt with recent heart surgery. Now with fever, pneumonia. Covid neg. Clearly bacterial infection with sepsis. Refuses transfer and refuses to stay in ER overnight awaiting a bed in the am. Left Against Medical Advice (AMA) despite my desperate pleas to stay.
“Patient 2: Pt with IVDU and back pain. Concern for infection in spine that could cause paralysis, severe infection, sepsis. COVID negative. Leaves AMA refusing transfer to available beds because he doesn’t want to go that far.
Patient 3: Kidney failure. Missed dialysis x 2 last week. BP 240/120. X-ray shows lungs full of fluid. COVID neg. After 3 BP meds in ED, BP better but still short of breath. Needs dialysis. Finally agrees to stay in our ER until a bed opens in the am. Refuses transfer.
Bill Lee - please help us. It’s not just Covid patients suffering. It’s all patients. It’s nurses, housekeeping staff, doctors, techs, and staff. I look into their eyes every shift, and we know we are where we need to be. We are proud to do the job. We need you to help.”
Parnell reported another frontline casualty
“In the last 24 hours, my best Emergency Physician friend was [diagnosed] with COVID because of an exposure at work to a stroke patient who tested +. He now can’t work and his family is at risk. He’s proud of his work.”
Parnell said some of his patients have COVID-19 on top of other ailments.
“In the last week, I have diagnosed patients with a traumatic head bleed, kidney stone, and skin infection, all COVID +. It is raging so much in our communities right now that we cannot contain it. COVID19 is being spread before people even know they have it. We need your help.”
Parnell went on to describe the spirit that keeps our hospital heroes going even as they are deserted by Lee and other elected officials who refuse to implement proven policies to mitigate the virus.
“He wouldn’t be anywhere else and probably feels like he’s letting his team down as he can’t be there. We will pick up the extra shifts and continue to do our best for our patients. But this shows the problem. We have staff missing because there is so much COVID in our state.”
He repeated a plea that others have often made to the governor to no avail.
“Bill Lee, please enact a statewide mask mandate.”
Tennessee has reported more than 436,000 cases of COVID-19, more than 47,000 of them active. At the moment, it is getting more than 7,000 new cases a day and has a positivity testing rate above 12 percent.
Effective Dec. 21, the state will be reducing COVID-19 testing from five to two days a week to free up staff to administer the vaccine, a move that Democratic state Sen. Jeff Yarbro described as “absolutely, positively, 100% insane.”
Tennessee received its first batch of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine on Monday, but Lee tweeted that he was holding it “as an emergency backup supply should any receiving hospital’s supply be damaged” because there was “no equitable way” to decide which hospital should get it first.
His reasoning might have made more sense if frontline health-care workers were not at that very moment risking their lives treating COVID-19 patients. The box had enough doses to protect nearly 200 doctors and nurses and orderlies when even one day could be the difference between life and death.
Parnell saw the tweet and could not help but think of the hundreds of comrades who could be armored for the continuing fight. In his letter, he asked Lee to reconsider.
Please allow those 975 vaccines in your office in your Twitter photo op to be for front line workers. Even a single dose is more effective than a dose in a box.
Parnell would himself be returning to the fray in a few hours.
I will be back in the ER tonight working the overnight shift trying to do my best for my patients. I hope you will consider how you can help. James Parnell, MD
As of Wednesday night, the governor had not responded. Parnell will be back in the ER on Thursday.
“It’s where I’m supposed to be,” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s what I trained for.”