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Ballad says COVID-19 cases have almost tripled in past week, urges public to wear masks

By Keeli Parkey

During a media briefing held on Wednesday, July 15, Ballad Health officials announced that the number of COVID-19 patients being treated in its facilities has almost tripled in the past week.

“As of this morning, we now have 60 that are in-patient receiving care with Ballad Health,” Jamie Swift, Ballad’s corporate director of infection prevention, said. “Of the 60, 14 are receiving intensive care in the intensive care units and eight are on ventilators.”

The average age of COVID-19 patients treated in Ballad hospitals is just over 60 years old, according to Ballad officials; however, patients of all age ranges have been treated.

Swift also said that the current patient capacity for the health system is at 78.6 percent.

“These numbers indicate that this disease is spreading more rapidly than ever right here in our community, so it is extremely important that we continue to take our social distancing, our mask wearing and our hand hygiene seriously to prevent the spread,” Swift continued. 

According to Swift, the majority of the new cases in the region are related to community spread.

“We have seen that evolve,” she added. “In this last uptick we saw a lot of travel-related cases. Now that we have COVID in the community, we are not seeing large outbreaks; we are seeing sustained community spread throughout all of our communities.”

As of 3 p.m. on Wednesday, there have been 61 total cases of COVID-19 among Unicoi County residents. Of that number, eight cases are currently active.

Swift also reported that due to the number of COVID-19 tests being performed nationally, it is taking longer to receive results. 

“In some cases, it is taking a week to 10 days to get results,” she added. “It is not that we are doing more tests that is making our case numbers go up. What we are looking at is the positivity rate. In April we were seeing a positivity rate of less than one percent. At this point, it is now over two percent. Our positivity rate tells us that the actual number of cases is increasing and not strictly related to just doing more testing.”


Also on Wednesday, Eric Deaton, Ballad’s chief operating officer, shared that Ballad recently sent an open letter to the mayors in the region asking them to initiate mask mandates in their communities.

“We have made the decision to speak out about this issue and ask people to wear masks because of how fast COVID-19 is starting to spread in our region,” Deaton said. “There is really no reason to think that this growth in cases is going to stop anytime soon unless we, as the citizens of our region, really start to think about how we can protect each other and take precautions even greater than we have in the past to prevent the spread.”

Deaton also said that as flu season approaches and schools begin to reopen the continued spread of COVID-19 “could actually overwhelm the health system if we don’t take actions now as citizens to help stop the spread of COVID-19 in our region.”

Deaton called for the citizens of the region to come together and be “100 percent supportive of mask wearing.”

“This is really something we can do to help each other,” he added. “You think about putting a loved one at risk by not wearing a mask – my dad at 82 years old, is very important to me and it is very important that he is protected, just like we all have loved ones in our lives that we protect. That is something I can do personally to help protect him and something we all can do to protect others in our region.”

Deaton also said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has “consistently and repeatedly cited mask wearing as one thing we can do to stop the transmission of COVID-19. That goes along with social distancing that we are talking about and hand washing can be very effective.”

Deaton also said that Ballad continues to require employees, vendors, EMS, police, visitors and most patients to wear masks.

“We are strictly enforcing this policy,” he continued. “Non-compliance will not be tolerated inside a Ballad Health facility.”

Regarding Ballad’s visitation policy, Deaton said as of Friday, July 17, patients will be allowed one visitor that will be designated by the patient upon admission to the facility. That visitor is designated throughout the entire stay of that patient. 

“This is to help us cut down on the number of people in our facilities to help protect, obviously, our team members and to protect the patients,” Deaton added. “We will continue to screen visitors as they come into the facility. …”

Visitation will not be allowed to long-term care facilities and behavioral health facilities. Visitation regulations for pediatric, neo-natal and expecting mothers and deliveries will remain at current levels.

Visitors will be expected to bring their own masks with them to Ballad Health facilities.


Deaton also shared modeling Ballad has completed on the spread of COVID-19 in the health system’s 21-county service area of the Appalachian Highlands region.

“Early on, we had very few cases. We had a little bit of a spike around the Easter timeframe,” he said. “(The number of cases) started to increase around the end of May when we started to get into summer and more vacations were happening. We really have seen a tremendous growth. As of July 5-11, we saw our biggest growth with 612 cases in our region. We have seen tremendous growth happening as social distancing was relaxed and as mask wearing was not adhered to. So far, we are seeing 250 cases this week. That continues to grow more and more each week.”

Deaton also shared information about the number of patients hospitalized with COVID-19.

“Early on, we had one or two. We got down to zero in-house patients in early June,” he said. “As we have moved forward, around June 25, we really started seeing our spike. … We have started to double … We continue seeing that doubling happening faster than we anticipated it would happen.”

The final model Deaton shared explained three different scenarios Ballad is preparing for. The “worst case scenario” could overwhelm the health care system.

“This is what we are trying to avoid, obviously, by wearing masks and doing the things we are talking about, being careful about this and looking out for each other,” Deaton added. “We are trying to avoid a large increase in cases.”

Also on Wednesday, Ballad Health Chief Physician Executive Dr. Clay Runnels reiterated that the health system has seen a significant increase in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Runnels said Ballad currently has 100 beds available for COVID-19 patients, 60 of which, as Swift previously said, are currently occupied. 

“Right now, we have 40 available COVID-19 beds,” Runnels said. “Given the trends in our region we will definitely need more. To create more COVID capacity in our facilities we will be making some changes to several of our hospitals by relocating staff from these facilities to nearby facilities to support staffing overall as we create more COVID-19 dedicated beds.

“By making these changes we hope to increase our capacity for COVID-19 patients by 50 additional COVID-19 beds. Today, we have 40 available.”

Runnels said more details about these changes will be released in the coming days.

He also urged those who have recovered from COVID-19 to donate plasma.

“Anyone who has recovered from COVID-19 or has tested positive for antibodies are potential donors for plasma,” Runnels said. “Remember that your donation could save someone’s life.”

Those interested in donating should call Marsh Regional Blood Center at 408-7500.


Swift also addressed the recent cluster of COVID-19 cases that occurred at Sycamore Shoals Hospital in Elizabethton during Wednesday’s briefing. The first case at the hospital was reportedly identified on July 8.

“This was limited to the 12-bed (geriatric psych) unit,” Swift said. “At this point, in time we have now diagnosed 29 people. There are 23 team members and six patients who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 related to that cluster.”

Swift said the employees and patients that tested positive have been isolated.

“We are taking every precaution to prevent any further spread in that unit,” she continued. “Some measures put in place to control that included testing all Sycamore Shoals team members whether they were providing direct patient care or not. We did test over 300 team members to identify the scale of the issue. Any new admissions to Sycamore Shoals have been placed on a closed unit. … The unit is being staffed by team members who tested negative so we can be sure that our incoming patients are safe.”

Swift also said that Ballad will follow the guidelines of the Tennessee Department of Health and the Virginia Department of Health to determine when the employees who tested positive will be able to return to work.

Swift said Ballad immediately notified the department of health about the cluster the day it was identified.

“This serves as a reminder of why masking is so important,” she added. “We know that there are about 40 percent of people, according to the CDC, who may be asymptomatic and can obviously spread the virus. We really want to make sure that we are masking at all times to help limit the spread.”

Swift also said that recent reports have shown that 20 percent of all COVID-19 cases are health care workers who have been exposed to the virus.

“That is part of the reason that we are continuing to focus on increased masking and increased precautions within our facilities,” she added. “I just really want to remind you that this is one of the most important things we can do as a community – whether your county has a mandate or not – masking is certainly going to help in the prevention of asymptomatic spread.”

Ballad Health has scheduled weekly media briefings for 11 a.m. on Wednesdays. The briefings can be viewed on the company’s Facebook page.