Ballad Health officials say hospitals are being pushed to the brink as the delta variant of COVID-19 continues to surge through the region.

“The number of patients that we’re seeing in the hospital and the way we’re seeing it grow is not going to be sustainable moving forward,” Ballad Chief Operating Officer said during a news conference Wednesday.

There are currently 201 COVID-19 patients in Ballad hospitals, which is up from 160 last week. Sixty-one of those patients are in the ICU, compared to 44 last week. Forty-four COVID-19 patients are on ventilators, compared to 26 seven days ago.

Ballad’s ICUs are at 95% capacity. Once those are filled, the system will begin repurposing post-operation recovery rooms into ICU rooms.

Ballad reported 25 deaths due to COVID-19 in the past seven days.

Since July 4, there has been a 1,251% increase in COVID-19 cases in the region. There were 3,323 positive cases in Ballad’s service area in the past week.

Three children are currently hospitalized at Niswonger Children’s Hospital with COVID-19. There are only two staffed ICU beds remaining available at Niswonger Children’s Hospital.

According to Deaton, there were 10 children in emergency rooms across the region Wednesday with COVID-19.

Thirty-five percent of positive cases in the Ballad Health service area last week were in children 18 years of age or younger.

Ballad officials maintained their strong support for virus mitigation measures including masking in schools during the press conference.

“As you know, Governor Lee has signed an order that allows parents to opt out of masks in schools,” Deaton said. “We are still begging and asking for students to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in schools. We don’t want COVID-19 to be a part of any family’s story.”

On Monday, Ballad stopped performing elective procedures that require an overnight stay as the system continues to grapple with the rapid influx of COVID-19 patients.

“That decision was difficult because those surgeries are still important. People will not be able to have hernia operations, kidney stones removed, or joint replacement procedures,” Deaton said. “Elective does not mean not needed.”

Ballad has been reaching out to retired nurses to return to hospitals to help deal with the surge, and Deaton expressed gratitude to those who had returned to help out.

“We’ve hired five retired nurses due to our recent call for help. Thank you to those caregivers who have decided to step forward to help. We really appreciate you,” Deaton said.

Retired nurses can call 423-302-3299 if they are interested in helping their local hospitals.

Ballad is making preparations to be able to receive over 100 more COVID-19 patients by September.

According to Ballad’s worst-case-scenario projections, there could be 481 COVID-19 patients in the system by September. The “middle of the road” scenario estimates 360 COVID-19 patients by the end of August, while the best case scenario projects 274 COVID-19 patients by Sept. 1.

According to Deaton, Ballad can typically care for 1,200 patients in the hospital at one time. Currently about 15%-16% of patients are COVID-19 patients.

“Those patients require a tremendous amount of resources, and on top of that we are having to hold patients in the emergency rooms,” Deaton said.

Deaton fears that if cases continue to climb, nearly 50% of Ballad’s hospital beds could be filled with COVID-19 patients.

As numbers continue to climb locally and throughout the Southeast, Ballad is running out of options when it comes to transferring patients to make space for more admissions.

“With capacity filling up at hospitals around the Southeast, we will soon run out of places to transfer patients, and we will be limited to receive patients here locally,” Dr. Clay Runnels Chief Executive Physician said.

As the Ballad Health system inches closer to being overwhelmed and with no other hospital systems in the Southeast able to provide relief, its leaders are looking to do anything they can to handle the number of the patients they believe are headed their way.

Deaton noted that the system is in the process of applying for help from the National Guard.

“Our modeling shows us getting to 300 COVID-19 patients by about the end of next week. We could get to 500 not long after that,” Deaton said. “Within the next 30 days, it is really important that we continue to focus on capacity. That’s why we’re looking at outside help from the National Guard.”

According to Runnels, of the COVID-19 patients that are currently hospitalized, 90% are unvaccinated and 93% of those COVID-19 patients in the ICU or on a ventilator are unvaccinated.

He also said that many of those patients on ventilators are no longer elderly, but instead are 30 to 50 years old.

“Most of the COVID-19 patients we have are unvaccinated, and they are younger and sicker,” said Runnels.

Runnels pleaded with residents in the area to get vaccinated to help stop the spread of the virus.

“The vaccine is safe and effective. Please go get your vaccine if you are eligible. It will protect you and those around you,” Runnels said.

The Greene County Health Department at 810 W. Church St. is currently offering free COVID-19 vaccines, either drive-up or walk-in. No appointment is necessary. However, those who prefer to make an appointment can go to tn.gov to reserve times for a first or second dose.

Adults aged 18 and older are eligible for all COVID-19 vaccines while children ages 12 and older are eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine.

The Health Department is also offering COVID-19 testing 2:30 p.m.-3:30 p.m.

The Health Department is open 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday.