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Ballad officials remain concerned about COVID-19 spread in region

Ballad Health released one of its first COVID-19 scorecards on Wednesday, Aug. 5. Health systems officials said they plan to release new scorecards each day. (Contributed photo)

By Keeli Parkey
During a media briefing Wednesday morning, Ballad Health officials said that almost 20 percent of the COVID-19 related deaths that have taken place within its 21-county service region of the Appalachian Highlands have occurred within the last week.
“Since we started publishing this data in early March we have had 6,381 positive cases. We have had 63 deaths attributed to COVID-19. …” Eric Deaton, Ballad’s chief operating officer, said. “We have attributed 12 deaths in the past seven days to COVID-19.”
As of Wednesday morning, Ballad was treating 94 patients with COVID-19. Of that number 22 were in intensive care units and 14 of those patients were on ventilators, according to Jamie Swift, Ballad’s corporate director of infection prevention.
“We do have 55 PUIs, or persons under investigation, admitted into Ballad Health this morning,” Swift also said. “Those are people who have been admitted, have symptoms that we think are most likely going to be COVID and that the test result is pending. We expect a lot of those test results to come this afternoon …”
The increase in the number of COVID-19 tests taking place in the region is not the reason for the rise in positive cases, according to Swift.
“There is a common misconception that the rapid increase in our numbers is actually because we’re testing more,” Swift said. “I want to make it very clear today that that’s not true – that the increase is not related strictly to increase testing.”
Ballad has been monitoring the positive percent of tests and has seen that number increase to more than 10 percent, Swift also reported.
“Early in the pandemic as you all know we were testing only those patients who were symptomatic. … During that time, the Ballad Health percentage of positives ranged from 3-6 percent,” Swift said. “During the late spring and early summer when we had our physical distancing, our stay at home orders – all those things were being strictly enforced – testing started becoming more widely available, so we started testing more, even for asymptomatic people not necessarily at risk. At that point, when we had social distancing in place, those measures in place, the rate for Ballad Health dropped to less than one percent positive.
“Today, as we are seeing this increased spread in our region and our nation, Ballad Health’s rolling average percent of positive cases is 10.9 percent.”
If the number of infections in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia were decreasing, that would be reflected in test results, according to Swift.
“We’re performing more tests than we ever have within Ballad Health. If our infections were truly improving, or if they were even under control at this point, we would see that positivity rate start to decrease; instead, we are seeing these rates continue to increase, indicating that there is a growing level of community prevalence and transmission,” she said. “When we first started hitting peaks in our number of testing – and that was in July – our (positive) percentage was less than eight percent. So, even though we are performing anywhere from 300-900 tests per week simply within the Ballad Health system, our percentage of positive continues to increase.”
The region’s 10.9 positivity rate is higher than metro regions in the state and across the country, according to Swift.
“Ten percent may not sound very alarming, but to really put that into context, the average positive percent for Tennessee currently is 8.3 percent and Virginia’s rolling average is 7.2 percent. …” Swift said. “Within the Appalachian Highlands, we are seeing positive rates that are even higher than our metro areas – Chattanooga is at 8.7 percent, Memphis is 8.5 percent, Knoxville is 5.3 percent. … New York has managed to really bring their outbreak under control and (their positive rate) now stands at less than one percent.”
According to Swift, most COVID-19 patients who are admitted to Ballad hospitals are hospitalized within two weeks after getting the virus.
“What we’re seeing from transmission to symptoms – that ranges from 2-14 (days) – but the average we’re focusing on right now, we are seeing five days,” she said. “Around that 5-7 day mark, you’re really seeing those symptoms. Admission to the hospital, we’re seeing 10 days. So, those patients who need to be hospitalized, oftentimes it’s not the minute they’re tested, it’s later in the course of illness that they really come back about day 10 and need that hospitalization. It’s taking about 11 days to ICU admission.
“Every 12 days, at this point, we are doubling our in-house case count,” Swift continued. “Also, week to week, our raw numbers of new cases that we’re working continue to increase, proving that according to our data our cases are increasing.”
Swift said health officials are hopeful that mask mandates and other efforts will make a difference in the coming weeks and that disease cycles “take time.”
“We do think that the mask mandates are certainly going to help,” she added. “There is some early indication that hopefully in the next week or two we’ll start to see some of the data slow down a bit as we have had mask mandates in place for several weeks now.
“Continue to stress mask wearing, social distancing and hand hygiene – that is truly the way that we get this under control and slow this down so our hospitals can continue to provide all the services that we need to to our community.”
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There were 60 COVID-19 beds and 17 ICU beds available in Ballad hospitals as of Wednesday morning.
According to Deaton, Ballad’s next surge plan calls for the health system to make additional beds available for COVID-19 patients, bringing its total to 165. The following surge plan would increase the number of COVID-19 beds to around 215. After that, the health system will have to consider halting elective procedures in order to increase capacity for COVID-19 patients.
Deaton also shared Ballad modeling that details three scenarios for COVID-19 – green, yellow and red. Green is the best case scenario, while red is the worst case scenario. Green represents the future should the public take the required actions to slow the spread of COVID-19; red represents a future where the public has a low rate of adherence to precautionary measures.
“We are tracking pretty much right in line with the worst case scenario,” Deaton said.
He did say Ballad is seeing some separation with that worst case scenario in its actual numbers and hopes that downward trend continues; however, that depends on the public wearing masks, maintaining social distancing and maintaining good hand hygiene.
“We continue to urge all of our citizens to continue to work together on this and to continue to wear a mask appropriately,” Deaton said.
Also on Wednesday, Ballad released the first of its daily COVID-19 scorecard it plans to share as the pandemic continues. The scorecard shares information about the total positive cases in Ballad’s 21-county service region, the number of deaths, the positivity rates, number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital, number of PUIs, available COVID-19 beds, the number of COVID-19 patients in ICUs across the health system and number of COVID-19 patients on ventilators. Deaton said this information will be updated each day and shared to the media and on social media.
According to the Tennessee Department of Health, as of 3 p.m. on Wednesday, there were 79 active cases of COVID-19 in Unicoi County. Those cases are included in the county’s total case count of 141. No COVID-19 related deaths have been reported in Unicoi County as of Wednesday afternoon, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.
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Also during Wednesday’s media briefing, Chris Miller, COO at Bristol Regional Medical Center and a COVID-19 survivor, shared his story of overcoming the virus and urged other survivors to donate plasma to Ballad’s COVID-19 convalescent study.
“Unfortunately, as we are well aware and talked about today, COVID-19 cases are rising at an alarming rate in our region and the local supply of convalescent plasma just simply can’t keep up with the current demand. If you’ve tested positive for COVID-19 and you have recovered, please consider donating plasma. Your gift of plasma could really make the difference for someone else struggling with the virus in one of our local hospitals. I really can’t think of a better way to serve our community than to give another husband, mother, grandparent, friend, neighbor, the opportunity to overcome the virus better than they otherwise would have by donating plasma and making that available for use for the treatment of those patients.”
To learn more about donating plasma, call Marsh Regional Blood Center at 230-5640 or visit marshblood.com.
Marsh is scheduled to host a blood drive at Erwin Utilities on Wednesday, Aug. 12, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. According to information shared by Erwin Utilities, all donors that day will receive a free COVID-19 antibody test.