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Governor expands testing availability, plans to reopen state

By Richard Rourk

Governor Bill Lee is preparing Tennesseans for life after a stay at home order that is due to expire at the end of the month.

On Monday, April 20, Lee announced the order for Tennesseans to remain at home will expire April 30, with the vast majority of businesses in 89 counties allowed to reopen on May 1.

“Our Economic Recovery Group is working with industry leaders around the clock so that some businesses can open as soon as Monday, April 27,” Lee said. “These businesses will open according to specific guidance that we will provide in accordance with state and national experts in both medicine and business.”

According to an April 20 press release, the Lee Administration will work with Shelby, Madison, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox and Sullivan counties and their health departments as they plan their own reopen strategies.

“While I am not extending the safer at home order past the end of April, we are working directly with our major metropolitan areas to ensure they are in a position to reopen as soon and safely as possible,” Lee said. “Social distancing works, and as we open up our economy it will be more important than ever that we keep social distancing as lives and livelihoods depend on it.”

The Economic Recovery Group, which is composed of 30 leaders from the public and private sector, is crafting guidance to assist businesses in a safe reopening. The industry representatives participating in the ERG collectively represent over 140,000 Tennessee businesses that employ over 2.5M Tennesseans.

This news is coming on the heels of Lee’s call for more COVID-19 testing in Tennessee.

During Lee’s April 15 press conference, it was announced that free COVID-19 testing will be available for any Tennessean, regardless of traditional symptoms, as the Unified-Command group ramps up an aggressive effort to expand testing capacity across the state.

“As we look to reboot our state’s economy, we must have a greater understanding of how this virus is operating in Tennessee,” Lee said. “Expanding our COVID-19 testing capacity allows more Tennesseans to have improved access to testing which will empower citizens to make informed health decisions.”

In recent weeks, states across the country have grappled with the availability of tests and supplies needed to conduct COVID-19 tests, as well as the backlog for processing tests. Rapid improvements to the testing apparatus allowed the Unified-Command Group, composed of the Tennessee Department of Health, Tennessee Department of Military and Tennessee Emergency Management Agency (TEMA), to develop expanded capacity and offer targeted testing across the state.

“Our clinical understanding of COVID-19 is changing rapidly and we need every Tennessean who isn’t feeling well, even outside of the traditional COVID-19 symptoms of cough, fever or difficulty breathing, to come out and get tested,” Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey said. “Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, quickly detecting this illness, isolating if ill and practicing social distancing are the most powerful tools we have to stop the spread and help our state return to work. I encourage every Tennessean to remember: ‘when in doubt, get a test’ as we work to identify COVID-19 cases and keep our neighbors safe.”

On Monday, Lee announced more than 11,000 Tennesseans received free COVID-19 tests through the weekend efforts of Unified-Command Group to offer tests regardless of traditional symptoms.

“Tennesseans across the state heeded the call of ‘when in doubt, get a test’ and we believe these efforts will be an important part of our overall strategy to reboot Tennessee’s economy,” Lee said. “While demand exceeded original projections, our Unified-Command group adapted quickly this weekend so that individuals who needed tests could receive them.”

Turnout on Saturday, April 18, was the largest with more than 6,500 samples taken from 22 sites across all three grand divisions of the state. Tennessee Department of Health personnel and soldiers and airmen of the Tennessee National Guard operated 19 sites, four more than originally planned, to meet the testing demand.

The additional sites were opened in coordination with city and county officials to meet demand based on local needs. Hours were extended to ensure all participants received a test.

The Sunday testing turnout exceeded expectations with more than 4,600 tests collected across 11 sites, according to information released by the state. On both days, many Tennesseans drove to sites outside their county of residence to obtain a test from a neighboring county that operated a weekend site.

“Since Gov. Lee’s expanded testing initiative announcement last week, we continue to see an increase in the number of citizens who want to be tested whether it’s on a weekday or weekend and regardless of symptoms,” Piercey said. “We thank our local partners for their help in making testing events a success and encourage citizens to utilize their local health departments for testing during the week.”

In the Northeast Region of Tennessee, two counties saw record numbers of COVID-19 tests performed. Over a six-hour period on Saturday, Hawkins County performed 470 tests. On Sunday, Washington County performed 829 tests over a six-hour period.

The expanded testing effort launched on April 18 with the Tennessee National Guard popping up 15 drive-through testing sites across the state. Drive-through testing sites will also be available during the weekends of April 25-26 and May 2-3.

In addition to drive-through sites, all rural county health departments across the state offer free COVID-19 testing five days a week. To schedule an appointment to get tested for COVID-19 in Unicoi County,  contact 743-9103.

The Tennessee Department of Health will also hold drive thru testing on the following dates: Greene County Health Department will be hosting a free COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at Greene County Fairgrounds on Saturday, April 25. Hawkins County Health Department will be hosting a free COVID-19 drive-thru testing site at Volunteer High School on Sunday, April 26.

BALLAD JOINS MAYO CLINIC STUDY

As more data comes in about COVID-19, more information is becoming available to medical professionals treating COVID-19 patients.

On Thursday, April 16, Ballad Health announced a partnership with Mayo Clinic to conduct a national COVID-19 research study.

The study will examine convalescent plasma as an experimental treatment for COVID-19, as some data indicates patients with COVID-19 might be able to fight off the virus by receiving antibodies from patients who have recovered from COVID-19.

According to Ballad Health President and CEO Alan Levine, Ballad is in need of plasma donations from patients that have recovered from COVID-19.

“We are now in need of donor plasma from patients who have tested positive and recovered from COVID-19 and are more than 28 days out from their diagnosis and doing well, or 14 days out, asymptomatic and have been retested with a negative result,” Levine said.

Levine acknowledged that the patients who have recovered from COVID-19 are thought to have developed antibodies to COVID-19 that might help sick patients combat their COVID-19 infections.

“We want to offer this therapy,” Levine said. “Each unit donated has the potential to help at least two patients who are currently hospitalized with COVID-19.”

Samples will be collected at Marsh Regional Blood Center in Kingsport, with plans to expand to Johnson City and Bristol soon. The blood center can be contacted at 408-7500 or by visiting the Marsh website.

During a press conference on Tuesday, Levine expressed support for Lee’s move to reopen businesses in Tennessee starting May 1.

“I commend the amount of work that the governor and his staff have done. They have been very methodical,” Levine said. “He has trusted Tennesseans to make good decisions for their health and the health of others by social distancing. I also commend the amount of testing that the governor has called for. We will have a second crisis and that is people are losing their savings and are behind on bills. They have to be able to make a living.”

It was also announced that Ballad Health is treating 15 patients for COVID-19 currently in their facilities.

“We do have 15 patients that are receiving treatment for COVID-19,”  Ballad Health Chief Physician Executive Dr. Clay Runnels said. “We do have a total of 300 beds set aside for COVID-19 care.”

Social distancing is assisting in keeping cases of COVID-19 low in the region.

“We are not out of the woods yet,” Runnels said. “These lower than expected numbers are due to social distancing. We must continue, as the state reopens, safety measures such as social distancing.”

According to Ballad Health Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton, Ballad has received new rapid testing devices.

“We have received four new rapid testing devices,” Deaton said. “This will help us continue to provide COVID-19 testing in a timely manner. We can now complete 400 tests inhouse and that is very important.”

If anyone is experiencing moderate symptoms of COVID-19, including cough, fever or shortness of breath, please call the Ballad Health Nurse Connect line at 833-822-5523 (833-8-BALLAD) to be screened. The hotline is active 24 hours a day, seven days a week. As always, anyone experiencing an emergency should call 911.

To learn more about COVID-19 including updated physical distancing scorecards, visit balladhealth.org/COVID19.

CASES

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been 746,625 positive cases of COVID-19 in the United States and 39,083 deaths reported as of The Erwin Record’s press deadline on Tuesday, April 21.

Also, there have been 7,238 positive cases of COVID-19 and 152 deaths as a result of the virus in the State of Tennessee, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. The deaths from COVID-19 in the State of Tennessee amount to two percent of the total positive cases in the state.

Of the positive cases, roughly 3,575, or 49 percent, of the positive cases have recovered.

According to tn.gov/health, recovered is defined as people who have been confirmed to be asymptomatic by their local or regional health department and have completed their required isolation period or are at least 21 days beyond the first test confirming their illness.

Roughly 13 percent of COVID-19 positive patients in Tennessee were hospitalized.

Unicoi County is currently reporting one positive case of COVID-19 and that person has recovered. Washington County has had 46 cases with 37 of those cases being classified as recovered. Sullivan County has had 45 total cases of which 35 are considered recovered and one reported death. Greene County has had 35 total cases with 23 recoveries and two deaths. Hawkins County has had 27 total cases with 23 recoveries and two deaths. Carter County has had five total cases with three recoveries and one death while Johnson County is reporting two total cases of which both individuals have recovered.

For more information including up to date statistics, please visit cdc.gov and tn.gov/health.

To find out the latest information regarding COVID-19 and Unicoi County, please visit unicoicountystrong.com.