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Masks Mandated to Ease Burden on Overcrowded Hospitals

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Washington, Chip

Shelby County residents are once again under a public indoor mask mandate starting today, just as area hospitals say they’re at a breaking point, inundated with an unrelenting load of COVID-19 patients.

In a letter addressed to local elected officials on Monday, hospital leaders had a stark warning. Emergency departments are already over capacity and medical staff soon may have to make tough choices about who receives care “based on their probability of survival.”

“We must inform you that we may have to begin triaging care to patients in the next few days,” the letter reads. “Currently, the city has no surge capacity to accommodate any additional disaster or unplanned events.”

Some ERs are already facing backlogs of more than a day, officials say.

“Waits in the emergency department are 36 to 40 hours,” Dr. Michelle Taylor, the head of the Shelby County Health Department, said at a briefing on Thursday. “I’ve heard reports as high as 60 hours. That’s almost three days waiting to just be seen.”

Nearly 650 patients are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, almost surpassing the record set during the winter surge in January.

Hospital leaders predict that number could double in the next few weeks. Without intervention, the county simply would not have enough hospital beds by the end of September for anyone, they say.

“The hospitals need us to work with them to be able to continue to function,” Taylor said.

She says the reinstated mask mandate could show an impact in about seven days. Under the new order, all residents, including the vaccinated, are expected to wear a face covering in indoor public settings and keep six feet of distance from others. Restaurant patrons can remove their masks after sitting down, and masks are not required while exercising at a gym.

Short-staffed hospitals are turning to the National Guard for help, but the real long-term solution for the healthcare system, Taylor says, is for more people to get a COVID shot. Still, less than half the local population is fully vaccinated.

“There is no more time to waste,” Taylor said. “The vaccine is safe. It’s effective. We know that most of the people who are hospitalized right now with COVID are unvaccinated.”

Local officials are also encouraging people with non life-threatening medical conditions to see their primary care physician or seek out an urgent care clinic to conserve ER space for true emergencies.