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Battle against COVID-19 continues: Ballad announces new restrictions; state, local officials urge citizens to stay home

By Richard Rourk

Ballad Health announced additional visitation restrictions at its facilities during a bi-weekly press conference on Tuesday, April 7.

“Beginning tomorrow, April 8, no visitors will be allowed at emergency or outpatient rooms due to the spread of COVID-19,” Ballad Health Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton said.

Deaton also announced that Ballad will begin screening all team members and visitors for fevers.

“Our team members that have a temperature of more than 100 degrees will be sent home for rest and will be retested after 72 hours,” Deaton said.

According to Ballad Health Infection Prevention Director Jamie Swift, Ballad has prepared beds for a surge of COVID-19 patients.

“We do have more than 200 COVID-19 beds available,” Swift said. “We currently have 13 patients hospitalized that have tested positive for COVID-19.”

Code Airway, a new communications system that will now be used by Ballad team members, was also announced on Tuesday. The system is designed to improve safety measures for patients, EMTs and hospital staff. Code Airway allows EMS to alert the hospital that a possible COVID-19 patient is on the way.

“Code Airway is a great tool for Ballad and will be the communication system we will be using going forward,” Ballad Health President and CEO Alan Levine said.

Levine also announced that Ballad Health will be recommending telemedicine service for patients that may not need to visit the hospital but need care.

“We have had telemedicine service for some time now and this will be helpful for those that need care but do not wish to go to the hospital,” Levine said.

Ballad Health has more information available, including directions to make homemade masks and how to care for them at balladhealth.org.

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According to the Tennessee Department of Health’s website, tn.gov, Unicoi County still only has one confirmed case with 31 people testing negative for COVID-19, as of The Erwin Record’s press deadline the morning of April 7.

At that time Sullivan County had 25 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 211 testing negative. Sullivan County also had one death due to COVID-19. Washington County had 24 confirmed cases and 320 negative tests for COVID-19. Greene County reported 17 confirmed cases and 92 negative tests for COVID-19. Greene County had one death due to COVID-19. Hawkins County had 14 confirmed cases and 77 negative tests. Hawkins County had reported one death due to COVID-19. Carter County had a total of 3 confirmed cases and 79 negative tests for COVID-19. Johnson County had reported 2 confirmed cases and 12 negative tests for COVID-19.

The total number of positive cases in Tennessee are 3,802 out of approximately 47,350 that have been tested, as of Tuesday morning. There have been 352 hospitalizations and 65 deaths in Tennessee as a result of COVID-19. There have been 356 people in the State of Tennessee that have recovered from COVID-19.

Of those 3,802 cases, 846 are between the ages of 21-30, 679 are between the ages of 51-60, 627 are between the ages of 31-40, 587 are between the ages of 41-50, 454 are between the ages of 61-70, 232 are between the ages of 71-80, 183 are between 11-20, 122 are over the age of 80, 45 are between the ages of 0-10 and 27 cases have unconfirmed ages.

There have been a total of 43,548 negative tests in the State of Tennessee.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have now been 330,891 confirmed cases and 8,910 deaths as a result of COVID-19 in the United States.

BALLAD’S NEW TESTING TOOL

Ballad Health has rolled out a new testing tool for COVID-19. According to information released by the company, it will be among the first healthcare systems in the nation to deploy rapid testing for the COVID-19.

Instead of test results for COVID-19 taking five to seven days, this new rapid molecular test, developed by diagnostics company Cepheid, will provide patients in the Appalachian Highlands with test results in five to seven hours.

“Ballad Health has been working hard to serve the needs of the community during this trying time and finding ways to streamline testing for COVID-19 has been one of our top priorities,” Ballad Health Senior Vice President and Chief Integration Officer Brad Price said.

According to Price, Ballad Health will have the capacity to process approximately 50 of the rapid tests per day, but that number is expected to grow in the coming weeks.

“To better meet the needs of our community, our executive leadership team has decided to invest additional dollars into increasing the capacity so that we will be able to process around 400 rapid tests per day within the next two to three weeks,” Price said.   

On March 21, Cepheid announced it had gained emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to use Xpert® Xpress SARS-CoV-2, a rapid molecular diagnostic test for qualitative detection of SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19.

“During this time of increased demand for hospital services, clinicians urgently need an on-demand diagnostic test for real-time management of patients being evaluated for admission to healthcare facilities. An accurate test delivered close to the patient can be transformative and help alleviate the pressure that the emergence of the 2019-nCoV outbreak has put on healthcare facilities that need to properly allocate their respiratory isolation resources,” Cepheid Chief Medical and Technology Officer Dr. David Persing said. “By leveraging the design principles of our current Xpert Xpress Flu/RSV cartridge technology, in which multiple regions of the viral genome are targeted to provide rapid detection of current and potential future variants of SARS-CoV-2, we have developed a test that provides reference lab-quality results in multiple settings where actionable treatment information is needed quickly.”

The test is designed to operate on any of Cepheid’s more than 23,000 automated GeneXpert® Systems worldwide, including those within the Ballad Health system.

“We are eager to scale up our capacity,” Ballad Health Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton said. “We are also taking care to utilize rapid testing where it’s needed most. This prioritization helps us preserve needed personal protective equipment for our team members, and slow community spread.”

Ballad Health will prioritize in-patients needing testing; patients with severe symptoms presenting in Ballad Health emergency departments; and Ballad Health team members experiencing symptoms and exposed to COVID-19. Community members who suspect they may be experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should continue to utilize the screening process established by Ballad Health and can do so by calling the Ballad Health Nurse Connect line at 833-822-5523 (833-8-BALLAD).

This announcement does not impact patients who have already been tested for COVID-19. If you have already been tested and are awaiting results, you do not need to be re-tested. Your results will be provided by Ballad Health or the local health department when the results are provided by the laboratory companies previously processing the tests. 

Ballad Health also acknowledged that a cluster of positive COVID-19 tests in Hawkins County includes Ballad team members. Ballad Health has identified a cluster of positive coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) tests in Hawkins County, including three Hawkins County Memorial Hospital team members.

The affected team members work in direct patient care roles; however, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ballad Health has taken increasingly stringent measures to proactively safeguard its patients from the infection, including tightened visitation restrictions, increased personal protective equipment (PPE) use and heightened focus on hand hygiene.

To further ensure safety for patients and the rest of the community, Ballad Health is asking anyone who has been inside Hawkins County Memorial since March 20-March 31 to be especially vigilant for symptoms of COVID-19, including cough, sore throat and fever. They should also strictly adhere to physical distancing recommendations of 6 feet or more, and they should remain home unless engaged in essential activities or reporting for work at essential businesses.

Ballad Health team members and physicians who might have been exposed to COVID-19 will follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines for healthcare workers. All testing will be coordinated with the Ballad Health infection prevention team, its team member health department and the Tennessee or Virginia Department of Health. If testing occurs, the individual must remain in quarantine at home until the test results are reported.

If a team member or member of the medical staff has been exposed, but continues as asymptomatic, they will not be tested for COVID-19. Team members in direct patient care roles, regardless of potential COVID-19 exposure, wear surgical masks every day to lessen COVID-19’s spread.

Anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms should call Ballad Health’s Nurse Connect line at 833-822-5523, available 24 hours a day. The health system has set up several testing sites throughout the Appalachian Highlands.

For up-to-date information about the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit balladhealth.org/COVID19.

GOVERNMENTS ISSUE ORDERS

It was another busy week for government officials and healthcare professionals as they brace for more fallout from COVID-19.

Following Governor Bill Lee’s Safer at Home order that was issued on March 30, local municipalities followed suit. On March 31, Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely, Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley and Town of Unicoi Mayor Johnny Lynch all presented their own versions of the Safer at Home order.

“We must protect the citizens in our community, especially the vulnerable populations like the elderly,” Evely said. “We need everyone to stay at home so we can assist our healthcare workers as they battle COVID-19.”

The Safer at Home order calls for citizens to stay at home as much as they can. Only essential workers, such as health care professionals, grocers and food service workers, to name a few, are permitted to leave home. Anyone doing essential business, such as exercise with social distancing, grocery shopping or getting take out, is permitted to leave home. The Safer at Home order requests those who can stay home and work from home to do so. To view the full Safer at Home order, please visit tn.gov/governor/covid-19.

For Erwin, the Safer at Home order has altered some of the town’s amenities. The street department will be working under a Safer at Home schedule during the State of Tennessee’s State of Emergency mandate.

According to Town of Erwin Communications Specialist Jamie Rice, there will only be the services of the junk and brush trucks running on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays. This will continue until the State of Emergency mandate is lifted. During this time the town will be limiting our workers and rotating them out weekly so they too can be safe. Town mowing, pothole management and unforeseen emergencies will be evaluated and dealt with on a need-to basis.

The parks department will be working under a Safer at Home schedule during the State of Tennessee’s State of Emergency mandate. There will only be a couple of parks employees monitoring the parks in the city limits. They will be doing their daily checks to ensure the parks are staying clean and safe. During this time mowing will not be performed regularly but will be managed as needed.

The restroom facilities are closed at this time and will continue to be closed until further notice. As of April 4, all playgrounds, pavilions, benches, tables and skate park will be closed until further notice.

Due to COVID-19 several upcoming events planned in Unicoi County have been canceled. The Great Outdoors Festival, which was scheduled to take place May 2, in downtown Erwin, has been canceled. The Ramp Festival, which was scheduled to take place in Flag Pond, has been canceled. In the Town of Unicoi, both the 25th Fiddlers and Fiddleheads and the 18th Annual Wayne Scott Strawberry Festival have been canceled.

“The governor wants us at home, he’s made that clear,” Lynch said. “And health officials are saying the coronavirus threat could last up until the summer, so it’s best for our citizens if we don’t have the festival this year.”

NEW ASSESSMENT SITES ESTABLISHED

To increase coronavirus (COVID-19) testing, the Northeast Regional Health Office has established assessment sites in Carter, Greene, Hawkins/Rogersville and Washington counties. Assessment sites are open to pre-screened and pre-registered patients only.

Residents who have concerns they may have symptoms of COVID-19 can contact the Northeast Coronavirus Information Line at 979-4689 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Pre-registration is required for testing at all sites and will be unavailable at the sites. National Guard medical teams will be onsite to assist with testing. Effective April 3, until further notice, the sites will be open in the health department parking lot on the following days:

• Greene and Carter County Health Departments: Monday-Friday from 9-11 a.m.

• Rogersville and Washington County Health Departments: Monday-Friday from 1-3 p.m.

Patients with symptoms will undergo pre-screening and pre-registration by phone, and then be directed to the site to undergo nasal swab collection and testing for COVID-19. Public health regional nurses will then follow-up with the patient.

Most people, particularly those with mild or no symptoms, do not need assessment for COVID-19, according to Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office spokeswoman Kristen Spencer. 

Those in high-risk categories, including contacts of confirmed cases; people in occupations with exposure to large numbers of contacts; health care workers; nursing home residents; severely immunocompromised patients; critically ill patients; pregnant women and people who have COVID-19 symptoms, are prioritized for testing. 

There are many things residents can do to reduce the impact of COVID-19:

• Wash your hands often with soap and water (or alcohol-based hand rub) for at least 20 seconds, especially after coughing or sneezing;

• Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth with unwashed hands;

• Stay home when you are sick;

• Cover your coughs and sneezes with your arm or a tissue;

• Clean and disinfect objects (e.g., cell phone, computer) and high touch surfaces regularly;

• Practice social/physical distancing from others, be safer at home.

All Tennesseans, especially those in high-risk populations, should take the following actions to reduce the possibility of getting sick with COVID-19: 

• Keep space (at least 6 feet) between yourself and others;

• Limit your time in public to essential needs only, such as grocery trips, medical care, pharmacy needs or emergencies;

• When you are in public, avoid crowds as much as possible, and keep away from others who may be sick, and wash your hands often;

• Avoid non-essential travel, especially on airlines and cruise ships; and,

• Stay home as much as possible to reduce your risk of being exposed.

TDH has additional information available at tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov.html. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has updated information and guidance available online at cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html.

INFORMATION AVAILABLE

The Tennessee Department of Health Northeast Region has launched a Coronavirus Public Information Line. The number is 979-4689 and is available daily from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m.

People with concerns about their health should contact their health care providers.

The COVID-19 Public Information Numbers are 833-556-2476 and 877-857-2945 are available from 11 a.m. until 11 p.m. daily.

Ballad Health has the following line open for the public. If you think you may have COVID-19 please call 833-822-5523 to be prescreened.

You can also visit the following websites for more important information:

• To view updated COVID-19 numbers in Tennessee please visit tn.gov/health/cedep/ncov.html.

• For comprehensive information on COVID-19 please visit cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/index.html.

• For more updates from Ballad Health including an online prescreen tool by visiting balladhealth.org/medical-services/infectious-disease.