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Ballad officials remain concerned as number of COVID-19 cases continues to increase

By Keeli Parkey

During a media briefing held on Wednesday, July 22, officials with Ballad Health, which serves a 21-county area in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, said they remain concerned about the continued rise in the number of COVID-19 cases throughout the region.

“It is important to continue to recognize the seriousness of the situation. COVID-19 is causing significant death and disability across the Appalachian Highlands,” Ballad Health Chief Physician Executive Dr. Clay Runnels said. “We are seeing people of all different ages in our COVID units. We have patients who have minor symptoms to start with – headaches, weakness, fatigue – and now they are in-patients in our COVID units. 

“The constant thing we are hearing from our patients, unfortunately, is that many of them have expressed that they wished that they had taken more precautions – that they had worn masks, practiced social distancing and other precautions like handwashing to prevent their illness,” Runnels continued. “Several of our patients in our COVID units are telling us that they have not been around people with COVID-19, so we truly are in a state of community spread. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of social distancing, wearing masks, washing hands and just using good judgment about keeping healthy right now.”

Jamie Swift, who was named Ballad’s chief infection prevention officer on Wednesday, echoed Runnels’ concern.

“COVID-19 is a serious threat and we continue to try to stress that to make people understand that this is a risk for us across the region – all ages. We continue to see all ages,” Swift said. “So, please, continue to talk about social distancing, handwashing, wearing a mask – those are the things that we really need to continue to do. Those are the tools we have to slow down the spread.”

Swift also reported that, as of the media briefing, Ballad was treating 70 COVID-19 patients in its facilities.

“Of the 70, 18 are in intensive care and 13 are on ventilators,” Swift said.

Eric Deaton, Ballad’s chief operating officer, said Wednesday that the health system had 30 patients under investigation (PUI) for COVID-19. These are patients, according to Deaton, who are awaiting COVID-19 test results. 

“We could easily go from 70 in-house patients to 80 or 90 overnight depending on the test results coming in,” Deaton added.

Deaton said Ballad is also implementing surge plans across the health system as numbers of COVID-19 patients are expected to rise. The health system plans to increase the number of COVID-19 beds to 145 or 150 by the end of the week. To do so, the health system will be making staff changes to several of its hospitals. 

Deaton said that at Hancock County and Hawkins County hospitals, Ballad has put a temporary pause on medical admissions and surgical procedures. Staff at those hospitals have been relocated to Holston Valley Medical Center to help support patients at that facility.

Deaton also reported that Ballad is prepared to “trigger the temporary relocation of some in-patient providers” at Unicoi County Hospital to Sycamore Shoals and Johnson City Medical Center.

Franklin Woods Community Hospital and Greeneville Community Hospital East will temporarily reduce capacity in their intensive care units. Some staff of those hospitals will be sent to work at Johnson City Medical Center. Staff at Virginia hospitals will also be moved to other facilities.

“By making these changes we should be able to add another 50 beds by the end of the week and have 150 beds for COVID patients,” Deaton said. “Shifting our team members to these locations is really the best way for us to free capacity without having to stop surgeries in our region. Again, we stress these are temporary moves. All of our emergency departments are still open. All of our hospitals are still open. We haven’t closed any facilities.”

Ballad is also developing surge plans to make 200-250 COVID beds available. According to the health system, the maximum number of COVID-19 beds it can handle is 350. 

This number represents what Deaton called the “worst case scenario” and could occur if people do not take precautions against COVID-19.

“With this disease, the focus really has to be how do we continue to do the right things as a community and a region – wearing our masks … social distancing, washing our hands,” he said. “We need to do everything we can to combat this disease.”

To offer perspective on the recent increase is COVID-19 cases in Ballad’s service region, Deaton shared the number of hospitalizations due to the virus. 

“To give you a comparison, on June 21 we had four patients in-house,” he said. “On July 7, we had 21 patients in-house. Today we had 70 patients in-house.”

Deaton also said that the trends are showing that Ballad will have many more COVID-19 patients in its facilities during the coming weeks, but he is hopeful that mask mandates recently put in place by local municipalities will help slow the spread. 

“We are hoping that within two to three weeks we will start seeing a leveling off of our cases,” he said.

Deaton also said that people should be prepared to wear masks until a vaccine is developed and implemented. 

“We have to be prepared to do that,” he added. 

DELAYS GETTING TEST RESULTS

Also on Wednesday, Swift urged those who have been tested for COVID-19 by Ballad Health not to call emergency departments for the results. 

“In the news you have probably seen that nationally there is a delay in testing. As the demand increases for tests that is going to cause a delay in those commercial laboratories where we send those test results out,” Swift said. “Our health system is not immune to that trend. We are continuing to see that. We are at the point now that you may see test results to take up to a week or longer. What we ask is you please do not call the emergency room for those test results. They don’t have them. We don’t want our emergency room phone lines to get backed up.”

Swift said those tested could call Ballad’s Nurse Connect hotline; however, she said the wait times on that line do increase as more calls are made. The number for the Nurse Connect hotline is 833-8-BALLAD (833-822-5523).

“We will call, positive or negative,” Swift said. “Ballad Health will call you if we performed the test.”

PLASMA DONORS NEEDED

Runnels also said that Ballad is working on “several efforts” of COVID-19 research and treatment.

“In April we announced that we were partnering with the Mayo Clinic to conduct a study on the effectiveness of convalescent plasma donated from people who recovered from COVID-19 as a treatment option,” he added. “Convalescent plasma does show great promise in the treatment of COVID-19. The antibodies that are present in the blood of people that have recovered from COVID-19 can be effective at treating critically ill patients with COVID-19. With people with moderate COVID-19 symptoms that are hospitalized, COVID-19 plasma has also shown to keep them from developing more severe or life-threatening complications. Convalescent plasma can be a sustainable treatment option for COVID-19, but it requires local plasma donors. … One donation can make an enormous impact on a patient who has COVID-19; it can give them the strength and ability to fight off the disease.”

To find out if you qualify to donate plasma, call Marsh Regional Blood Center at 230-5640. 

Also, Marsh Regional is conducting free COVID-19 antibody testing for its blood donors. Runnels said this will help Ballad better understand the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the region and nationally. 

“The test is only available to donors after successfully completing a pre-screening and confirmed eligibility,” Runnels said. “It does not indicate whether you currently have COVID-19 … but it can show previous COVID-19 infection. It’s a great opportunity in our region for us to work together to better understand COVID-19. Estimates for how many people who have contracted COVID-19 while staying completely asymptomatic vary greatly – from anywhere from 20-45 percent positive. This research helps us develop a better gauge of how far the virus as truly spread and is working hand-in-hand with our convalescent plasma study.”

More information is available on marshblood.com.

More than 7,000 people have been tested for COVID-19 antibodies. According to Swift, the majority of those individuals did not have the antibodies.

“(That) tells us that the majority of the population is still susceptible to COVID-19 in this region,” Swift added. 

UNICOI COUNTY CASES

As of 3 p.m. on Wednesday, July 22, there have been 70 cases of COVID-19 in Unicoi County. Of that number, 14 cases are classified as active by the Tennessee Department of Health.