Even with just one hospital, Williamson County has more beds than most counties in Tennessee, but doctors and researchers are warning that the coronavirus outbreak could soon overwhelm the U.S. health care system. They say Williamson County is not exempt.
According to a 2019 report from the Sycamore Institute, a public policy research institute based in Tennessee, Williamson Medical Center had 185 staffed inpatient hospital beds in 2017.
A Tennessee Department of Health report notes that on average just over 45% of those beds were occupied in 2017.
However, Adam Brown, president of emergency medicine services for Nashville-based Envision Healthcare, said the U.S. is the midst of a bad flu season and most U.S. hospitals are above normal occupancy.
“At this point, many of our hospitals have been, and have been for weeks, at very high capacity,” he said.
Williamson County has far more beds than most counties in the state. Half the counties in Tennessee have 35 hospital beds or fewer, and 20 counties don’t have a hospital at all. However, Williamson County lags in the number of hospital beds considering its size.
Williamson County had more than 1,200 residents per hospital bed in 2017. As a whole, Tennessee had 421 residents per hospital bed, according to the Sycamore Institute report.
Brian Hovey, the Senior Director of Operations for the Williamson County Emergency Management Agency, said looking at the situation for one county or one hospital doesn’t give a sense of how well a health system is prepared. He said it’s more reasonable to look at capacity from a regional perspective.
"Simply understanding what the situation is at the medical center doesn't give really a comprehensive view of the impact on the medical system as a whole," he said. "The state of Tennessee does run a program through the state health department that monitors the status of all of the hospitals in the state that receive patients by ambulance.”
He said the county doesn’t make it a practice to monitor hospital resources because the state is keeping tabs on that.
Zooming out to the regional level tends to look better. The Nashville metropolitan area has 396 residents per hospital bed, and Middle Tennessee has 449 residents per hospital bed. But that may not be enough.
Brown said the coronavirus outbreak could soon overwhelm the health care system across the country.
“We should be taking steps now to address the capacity issues," he said. "I'm an ER doctor. I'm not easily panicked. I'm not alarmist. However, when I see things that are in our face, that are impending, we need to sound the alarm.”
A recent report published by the Harvard Global Health Institute estimates that health care systems in many parts of the country, including the Nashville area, could soon be overwhelmed by patients with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new virus.
That report estimated that if one if five people in the Nashville are get infected by the virus over the next 18 months, then the health care system would be nearly at its maximum capacity. If more people are infected, or if the infection spreads faster, then the local health care system could be overwhelmed.
That estimate doesn’t take into account efforts by hospitals and the state government to ramp up resources in anticipation of a growing number of COVID-19 cases.
For example, Williamson Medical Center recently suspended all elective procedures, in part to free up more space and more doctors to fight the disease.
The Home Page reached out to the medical center asking about hospital capacity and plans to prepare for the virus, but a representative said the hospital could not answer individual questions beyond its media statements.
Brown is also worried about the supply of protective equipment, such as masks and gloves, for health care workers. He said many hospitals are already starting to draw supplies from a national stockpile.
In a Facebook Live video on Wednesday Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey said the coronavirus outbreak in China has slowed down production of those materials she’s already starting to see a lack of personal protective equipment in Tennessee.
If health care workers can’t get access to equipment like masks, Brown said they are at a higher risk for infection.
“When our health care workers get ill, they can't take care of patients,” Brown said. “If they can't take care of patients for a while, now you start to see some strains on staffing.”
Envision is a company that provides staff for hospitals and works with them to provide clinical guidelines and best practices. Brown said he’s expecting that staffing will be a major issue in delivering medical care. It’s already been a problem in other countries.
“The only thing we can know is what we've seen happen in other countries that have been ahead of us,” Brown said. “That's what gives us concern. We saw what happened in China. We also are seeing what has really alarmed many Americans is what's happening in Italy.”
What happened was that roughly 3,000 people died in both countries because of the virus.