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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Healthcare leaders in Memphis are warning that staffing issues may force hospitals to make tough decisions in the face of a rising tide of COVID-19 patients.

In recent days, doctors have warned about hospitals being swamped and sick people unable to receive the care they need. 

“We are in a war against a highly infectious virus right now,” said Dr. Jeff Warren, a Memphis city council member.

Recently, Memphis city council members heard about a letter sent from emergency room hospital directors to the mayor. It informed them about dire situations, and said the urgency is real. 

“We must inform you that we may have to begin triaging patients,” read the letter, signed by 16 Memphis-area hospital directors. “The crisis is due to a lack of skilled personnel resources.”

“What they’re saying is, they’re done,” Warren explained. “They have no more room, they’re boarding 50+ patients in the ER, they don’t have any place to send them, the hospitals are over capacity, they don’t have enough nurses and staff. Even if they have beds there’s not enough nurses and staff.”

Warren explained what the doctors meant by triage.

“Now what that means it’s like a combat term or a battlefield term, and it means that when people are going to come in they’re going to look at their chances of being able to survive. And if it’s not a high chance they’re going to be put over on the side and allowed to die, and they’ll treat the people who have a chance of survival,” he said.

Warren continued, “So, that means if two people come in with COVID and pneumonia and one person has had a vaccine and the other one hasn’t, the person with the vaccine is going to be more likely to survive they’ll be treated and the other person won’t.” 

He said it’s the last choice any healthcare worker ever wants to make. 

“In a situation where you don’t have any choice and there’s nothing else you can do, that’s what triage means,” Warren said.

More than $50 million was poured into the old Commercial Appeal building for use as an alternate care site, but the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency closed that site before it was ever used.

The building now sits empty. The lease is set to expire in a month, and the medical equipment relocated to a TEMA warehouse.

We asked TEMA about the decision to close the site given the rise in hospitalizations.

“The current hospital capacity situation due to COVID-19 is one of having staff to treat patients, and not one of having actual hospital beds available,” TEMA said in an email.

100 percent federal funding, via FEMA, for the national ACS program to operate and staff the alternate care sites in every state is set to expire on Sept. 30.