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Health officials urge public to wear masks

Regional health officials are urging residents to wear masks in public to help slow the spread of COVID-19. (File photo)

By Richard Rourk

As cases of COVID-19 hold steady in Unicoi County, around Tennessee the number of positive cases continues to spike.

According to Johns Hopkins University, Tennessee saw its second spike of more than a thousand new COVID-19 cases across the state since phasing back in from the governor’s original stay at home executive order. Tennessee reported 1,247 new cases of COVID-19 on June 19. The last time that Tennessee had more than a thousand new COVID-19 cases in one 24 hour period, was on June 2, when Tennessee saw 1,776 new cases.

Ballad Health blames travel as a reason for the spike.

It’s been more than three months since the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the Appalachian Highlands. Since then, state health department data shows that number has ballooned to 774 COVID-19 cases in this region, 483 in Tennessee and 291 in Virginia. Nearly 100 of those cases have been diagnosed since June 10, and four patients are currently hospitalized at Ballad Health hospitals.

“Even though much of the nation has reopened, and we’re all striving to move forward in our new normal, please know: The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and being cautious and prevention-minded is still imperative,” Ballad Health’s Chairman and CEO Alan Levine said. “We are still in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Plans for reopening our communities and economies were developed with input from top health experts and scientists, and they rely on people still wearing masks and continuing physical distancing. Choosing to disregard these steps not only opens up your own risk of contracting COVID-19, but it puts everyone around you at increased risk, as well.”

Levine further said caution is especially warranted now, during vacation season and as the Fourth of July holiday approaches. More than half of the new COVID-19 cases at Ballad Health have been related to travel, and popular vacation spots such as Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Florida are reporting enormous spikes in COVID-19 cases.

“If you choose to travel, I implore you to do so safely. Research where you are going to assess the COVID-19 risk, wear your mask and avoid large groups of people. And when you return, monitor yourself for symptoms for at least 14 days, and do everything possible to limit your exposure to others, especially high-risk individuals,” Levine said. “Even if you’re staying local this season, wear your mask any time you’re in public, even if it’s not technically required. Forgoing a mask doesn’t make you brave or subversive – it makes you reckless and a risk to everyone’s health.”

Large gatherings, including family events, parties and community functions, have an inherently higher risk of COVID-19 transmission. Ballad Health leaders emphasize an increased need for masking, hand hygiene and physical distancing in these instances.

While Ballad Health has resumed many of its normal business functions, including permitting elective and non-emergent surgeries and allowing limited visitation, Levine and other health system leaders caution that if local COVID-19 cases continue to increase, restrictions might be put back in place to protect patients and team members.

“Since March, some aspects of our lives and businesses have changed irreversibly. Those changes might have been challenging to adapt to, but they’re not all bad,” Levine said.

Levine noted one example of positive change brought on by the pandemic is the availability and accelerated growth of telehealth services. Ballad Health has expanded its virtual health program, Connected Care, giving patients access to more than 500 primary care and specialty providers.

This rapid growth was made possible because of temporary changes in the regulation of telehealth, through Congress’ passage of the CARES Act and other commercial policy changes, according to information released by Ballad.

“It is vital the flexibility afforded by the CARES Act and other policy changes be made permanent so Ballad Health and health systems across the country can continue to offer this essential service,” Levine said. “I believe telehealth will unquestionably play a major role in the future of healthcare delivery, especially for rural health systems like ours, by expanding access to care for our rural and elderly patients at a lower cost. I want to sincerely thank all our doctors, nurses and team members who stepped up to quickly learn this new technology and helped make Connected Care such a success.”

In addition to Connected Care, Ballad Health launched a public service campaign, dubbed #SafeWithUs on June 7, which raises awareness about the importance of routine healthcare visits, as well as the assurance that it is absolutely safe to visit a doctor’s office or hospital.

Fear surrounding the pandemic, among other reasons, has led many patients to delay care or avoid it altogether. Ballad Health has seen its emergency department, inpatient/outpatient surgery and diagnostic imaging volumes drop by nearly 50 percent during the pandemic.

If some conditions are left untreated, people increase their risk of needing a major surgery or a lengthy hospital stay down the road. Worst of all, some conditions could lead to death without proper treatment.

“Chronic conditions, heart attacks and strokes do not take a break during a pandemic. I urge you to keep scheduled doctor’s appointments and reschedule any appointments that might have been canceled during the pandemic,” Levine said. “I know the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard, and some aspects of our lives may never return to the way they were. But I believe, truly and wholeheartedly, we have the ability to come through this stronger – but only if we all come together. At Ballad Health, you are #SafeWithUs.”

All Ballad Health facilities are taking crucial safety precautions, including enhanced physical distancing measures, increased infection control and new processes and systems to safeguard patients’ care journeys, according to the health system.

Anyone who is experiencing symptoms and believes they might have been exposed to COVID-19 is advised to call Ballad Health Nurse Connect at 833-822-5523.

For additional information regarding Ballad Health’s COVID-19 efforts, please visit www.balladhealth.org/COVID19.

LOCAL CASES

A brief look at Ballad Health’s Physical Distancing Scorecard shows that Tennessee counties continue to fall short in staying local. Unicoi, Washington, Sullivan, Greene, Carter and Johnson Counties all fell in the -25 or above category.

According to the scorecard, the lower the number the better as the number reflects distance traveled. The scores during stay-at-home orders hovered between -50 and -85 percent in the region.

Unicoi County continues to be one of the leaders in lowest number of cases in the region.

As of The Erwin Record’s deadline, Unicoi County has a total of 53 positive cases of COVID-19 with 52 cases that are listed as 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.

In Northeast Tennessee, Washington County has had 127 cases with 85 of those cases being classified as recovered. Sullivan County has had 76 total cases of which 67 are considered recovered and two reported deaths. Greene County has had 63 total cases with 53 recoveries and two deaths. Hawkins County has had 55 total cases with 32 recoveries and two deaths. Carter County has had 33 total cases with 22 recoveries and one death, while Johnson County is reporting 29 total cases with all 23 individuals who have recovered.

There have been 35,553 positive cases of COVID-19 and 23,567 recovered cases and 531  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 amount to two percent of the total positive cases in the state. Of the positive cases, roughly 23,567 or 66 percent, of the positive cases have recovered. There have been 699,854 COVID-19 tests that have been administered by the Tennessee Department of Health. Roughly six percent of COVID-19 positive patients in Tennessee were hospitalized.

According to the CDC, there have been 2,275,645 positive cases of COVID-19 in the United States and 119,923 deaths reported as of The Erwin Record’s press deadline on Tuesday, June 23.

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.