By Richard Rourk
According to an Aug. 13 press release, Ballad Health unequivocally supports taking all appropriate measures to keep children in schools for in-person learning. For the first time since this pandemic began, however, more than 30% of the positive COVID-19 tests performed daily by Ballad Health are in children. The healthcare network currently has three children receiving care for COVID-19 in the pediatric intensive care unit of Niswonger Children’s Hospital as of Monday, Aug. 23. Two of the children are on ventilators. The capacity of the pediatric intensive care unit is ten beds.
The regional healthcare network believes that taking the steps strongly recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the CDC and overwhelmingly echoed by medical and scientific leaders nationally and in the region are most likely to enhance the opportunity to keep children in school.
Ballad Health supports local school boards and recognizes that these bodies have the statutory duty to make decisions that impact our children in school.
Ballad Health recognizes the real harm foregoing in-person learning has done to children’s education and mental health – only 29% of third- through eighth- grade students in Tennessee tested on track for reading this year. This harm, if not corrected, might carry through their lifetime.
In the statement released on Aug. 13, Ballad officials feel it is imperative conditions be put in place that prevent, or at least minimize, the spread of disease in school that could ultimately lead to more absenteeism, school closures and most importantly, harm to children – particularly those who might have other conditions, which could make their outcomes uncertain.
Ballad also recognizes that the Delta variant poses a new threat to children. According to the CDC:
• The Delta variant is the dominant strain in the U.S., and by the end of July caused more than 80% of new U.S. COVID-19 infections, amounting to approximately 71,000 new cases per day.
• The Delta variant is more transmissible than the viruses that cause Ebola, the common cold, the seasonal flu and smallpox, and it is as contagious as chickenpox.
• Vaccination remains the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic. Promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning, as well as extracurricular activities and sports.
• Due to the circulating and highly contagious Delta variant, the CDC recommends universal indoor masking by all students (age 2 and older), staff, teachers and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.
• The Delta variant of COVID-19 is more contagious than the previous strains – it might cause more than two times as many infections – and it is the first known variant of COVID-19 to cause more severe illness in children.
Vanderbilt University Medical Center has announced it is full and will no longer take transfers from other hospitals in the state. Ballad’s release warns that such actions are occurring in children’s hospitals throughout the Southeast, where vaccination rates are low. Niswonger Children’s Hospital, part of the Ballad Health network, is, therefore, on its own, without the benefit of overflow capacity at Vanderbilt.
Further, adults who need quaternary levels of care might no longer have that option in the event Ballad Health’s adult beds fill up, an outcome more likely if children bring the virus home with them from crowded indoor facilities where there are no barriers from the virus. Already, Ballad Health has announced it is deferring non-emergent surgeries beginning Monday, Aug. 16, to create as much capacity as possible.
Until the region’s community is more widely vaccinated against COVID-19 – the current 38.4% vaccination rate is, put simply, nowhere near good enough – citizens must rely on other measures, including masking, to limit exposure. And for children, many of whom are not yet eligible for the vaccine, masking could mean the difference between contracting a dangerous disease that takes them out of school, possibly threatening their own health and that of other children and unvaccinated adults at home.
The Ballad statement points out that the region has lost 2,000 lives since the pandemic began, and healthcare providers continue to see more die. Ballad’s nurses and doctors have given everything they can, according to the release. But now, as deaths continue to mount, it weighs heavy on all citizens that these deaths are fully preventable.
Ballad has also announced that the region has hit an unwanted milestone.
Twenty clinical and non-clinical guard personnel from the U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force National Guard, have arrived to support healthcare workers struggling against the COVID-19 surge in the region.
As of Sunday, Aug. 22, Ballad Health has 237 positive inpatients with COVID-19 across its hospitals. Six of those inpatients are children, four of whom are in the pediatric intensive care unit — the highest number of pediatric inpatients with COVID-19 ever recorded in one day at Niswonger Children’s Hospital.