SEVIERVILLE — The “delta surge” of COVID-19 is stressing hospitals throughout East Tennessee, and they’re asking residents to help them mitigate the rise by getting vaccinated, wearing masks, and practicing social distancing.

Officials representing hospitals all over East Tennessee spoke to the media in an online briefing.The first part of their message was the latest spike of COVID-19 cases, cased by the delta variant of the virus, is causing more of an impact than the initial surge last winter.

“What we’re seeing this time around, over the last 30 days, is a much steeper rise,” said Dr. James Shamiyeh of UT Medical Center.

Compared to the peak of the winter outbreak, they have 61 more patients with COVID-19 in the hospital, 31 more patients in the ICU, and 33 more patients on ventilators, he said.

“This for us does look distinctly different,” he said.

On Monday, just 2.5% of the area’s ICU beds were available.

About 88% of the patients in the ICU in East Tennessee were on ventilators Monday, he said. For comparison, he noted 41% of the patients in ICU were on ventilators July 10, when the number of COVID patients were down.

Those patients require even more attention from staff than other patients in the IC. Those that recover require prolonged care as they get better.

And all the extra patients with COVID-19 are taking up beds that wouldn’t have been occupied two years ago.

“If this many patients are on breathing machines in the ICU, that means sicker patients than normal are outside the ICU,” he said.

“There is a domino effect created.”

In general, he said, the increase in ICU patients means that some patients who might ordinarily be in the ICU are in regular beds.

At UT, COVID-19 patients are taking up about 28% of their beds overall.

“A disease that didn’t even exist before is now taking up 28% of our beds,” Shamiyeh said.

The mortality rate that they’re seeing during this surge is much higher than before. From last year to Aug. 1, the rate was .42 deaths per day related to COVID-19, he said.

Since Aug. 1, it’s been 1.26 per day.

Sevier County’s only hospital, LeConte Medical Center, reported that they had 42 confirmed or suspected cases of the virus Wednesday. There were 11 patients in the ICU; none of them were vaccinated, according to the report.

LeConte asked for help from the National Guard to meet staffing needs this month.

The issues extended to emergency rooms, said Dr. Mark Browne, of Covenant Health.

Some hospitals are seeing twice as many ER patients as they normally see at this time of year.

“Not only are we as full as we’ve ever been … we’re also expecting longer wait times in our emergency departments not only for patients to be seen but also for patients to be transferred upstairs,” he said.

The delta variant — a mutation of the original strain of the virus — has been reported to affect children more often and more seriously than earlier variants.

They’ve seen that borne out at East Tennessee Children’s Hospital, where they have faced more cases of COVID-19 than ever, Dr. Joe Childs said.

More serious cases typically come up among children with pre-existing conditions, especially obesity, he said.

The surge among patients 20 and younger started before the new school year began, and grew worse in the first few weeks as more children were in contact with each other.

They’re hoping that the rise there has started to taper off, but they’re encouraging parents to have their children wear masks at school to help mitigate the spread.

As of Wednesday, they had 11 patients in the hospital including three in the ICU.

The vaccine has not been approved for children under 12, but they’re also encouraging parents and caretakers to get vaccinated to help alleviate the spread in that age group.

As a result of the growing cases, hospital staffs are stretched thin. From emergency rooms, to ICUs, to nurses and other staff, they are working overtime and not taking days off.

“This cannot be the new normal for the health care delivery system,” Shamiyeh said. “We can do this now but it’s not something we can do long term.”

In the long term, he said, they need more people to get vaccinated.

As a group, they stressed that the vaccines are safe and that they help prevent patients from getting serious symptoms if they get COVID-19.

That’s better for the patients, but it also means less stress on the hospitals.

As of Tuesday, the Tennessee Department of Health reported 48.8% of Sevier County residents have gotten at least one dose of a vaccine.

If a person starts getting one of the two-dose vaccines, and gets the second dose on schedule, they are looking at a period of six weeks before they are fully vaccinated.

“We believe the vaccine is very safe and very effective,” said Dr. Frank Beuerlein, of Tennova Healthcare.

“Our staff members are tired and to some extent frustrated because they know the vast majority of the disease could be avoided with a vaccination.”

And they asked that everyone take additional precautions to help them manage the spread in the short term. They ask that everyone wear masks, wash their hands, social distance and avoid large crowds.

Contact Jeff at jfarrell@themountainpress.com or Twitter at @jeffmtnpress

Contact Jeff at jfarrell@themountainpress.com or Twitter at @jeffmtnpress