The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Tennessee is at an all-time high, up 30% this month to around 400 people as of this week.
But a new analysis from epidemiologists at Vanderbilt University explains why hospitalizations are growing more slowly than once feared: a disproportionately high number of cases among young people.
On the whole, young people are healthier and less likely to have complications from COVID-19 that might send them to the hospital.
Hospitalizations often lag a spike in cases, since people usually fight the virus at home before seeking intensive care. But research professor Melissa McPheeters, of Vanderbilt’s health policy department, says the trend is becoming clear.
“We’re still looking at a slower rise in hospitalizations than we have seen in cases, even taking into account that lag. And so that, we think, is a reflection potentially of our case mix,” she says.
Hospitalizations in the Nashville area have been particularly stable due to the youth-leaning mix. In Davidson County, only 8.5% of cases have been over 65. By comparison, Shelby County has had nearly 13% of cases over 65.
And Memphis has recently seen the state’s most dramatic swell in new hospitalizations, a situation that “bears close monitoring,” according to the Vanderbilt modeling report released Tuesday.
But this particular mix of ages could change at any moment, McPheeters says. Vanderbilt epidemiologists also warn that even with the favorable factors, Tennessee will likely have 1,000 people in the hospital with COVID-19 all at once by the end of the summer, which is considered a threshold where hospital capacity starts becoming a problem.
There is also one more explanation for why hospitalizations aren’t quite tracking the surge in new cases: As many as 15% of patients in Tennessee hospitals are from out of state, at least prior to the pandemic.
Chattanooga and Memphis, in particular, see a large share of patients from across state lines. And most of the southeast, like Tennessee, is seeing a resurgence in cases as the economies reopen.