The number of people in the region hospitalized with COVID-19 has nearly tripled since last week, according to Ballad Health.

Ballad Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton said Wednesday that Ballad had 125 patients hospitalized for COVID-19 treatment, up from 46 a week ago.

Ninety-five percent of those hospitalized are unvaccinated.

Deaton warned that the hospitalization numbers could continue to spiral upward.

“We weren’t expecting numbers like this until September. At this rate we could see hospitalization numbers that are higher than last year. We could see over 400 or 500 COVID-19 patients hospitalized,” Deaton said. “We are already seeing longer wait times at our emergency rooms than we would like. Earlier this week, we had 100 patients waiting on beds in our system. That would not have been an issue if those beds were not holding 125 COVID-19 patients.”

Ballad will be introducing more mitigation measures in an effort to slow the spread of the virus, including limiting visitation to one visitor per patient as of Friday. Pediatric patients, expecting mothers, and end of life patients are permitted two visitors at a time.

Deaton explained that this surge is happening all across the country, and that systems Ballad works with when transferring patients are also becoming full. That presents an issue for local hospitals in a surge.

“When we all get full, we can’t transfer any patients to other places, because they are full as well. That is when things get grim. This is demoralizing because it doesn’t have to be happening, and it keeps happening.” Deaton said, “We have a vaccine, and it is safe and it works. Thank you to all the people who have been vaccinated for helping us curb this pandemic.”

According to Deaton, Ballad health will be reaching out to retired nurses to help handle the surge, and will take whatever help they can provide, even if it is just a few hours a week.

There have been 15 COVID-19 deaths in the last seven days in the Ballad system.

Of the 125 patients hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, 33 are in intensive care units and 17 are on ventilators.

Three of those hospitalized are children. Two of those children are on ventilators.

‘PROTECT OUR CHILDREN’

“This could be catastrophic,” Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said, “The delta variant poses a much larger threat to children than previous variants. This is not a time to wait and watch. If we wait to see if we have spread in schools, it is going to be too late.”

Chief Medical Officer of Niswonger Children’s Hospital Dr. Patricia Chambers communicated a grave concern for the safety of children in the area as the delta variant spreads.

“Twenty-two percent of positive cases in the region last week have been in children under the age of 18. Four children were hospitalized at Niswonger Children’s Hospital last week, and three are still there, with two on ventilators,” Chambers said.

Chambers pleaded that residents take the threat of the new delta variant seriously.

“This is real and this is happening. We have to do something as a community to protect our children. We have to protect those 12 and under who are not eligible for vaccination,” Chambers said. “I cannot emphasize enough the need to please go get your children vaccinated. If you need more proof, then just call us and ask us what it is like watching these children suffer and fight for their lives.”

Chambers also said that as schools go back into session masks should be mandated.

“With schools going back this week, children need to be in a mask. Ballad Health unequivocally supports universal masking for children and vaccination for children ages 12 and up,” Chambers said.

Dr. Joshua Henry, a pediatric critical care specialist at Niswonger Children’s Hospital, made it clear that he has seen a change in the number of children affected by COVID-19.

“This is new territory for us. This is now affecting our children,” Henry said, “During the entire time last year we would see children in the hospital sporadically, but now we are seeing our first surge of children seriously infected with COVID-19. We have had more pediatric hospitalizations this week than we have ever had in the pandemic,” Henry said.

Henry emphasized that intubating a child to put them on a life-saving ventilator is often traumatic for the child and the child’s parents.

“For a parent to have to watch their child be intubated is a very tragic situation. I have to give medicine to panicking children that are scared because they cannot breathe. That medicine keeps them from moving while I place large tubes into their lungs and stomach and IVs into their neck,” Henry said. “At that point, that child is on life support. If I take away that ventilator, they will die.”

Henry said he understands masks may not be popular, but right now they have become necessary again to protect children that are unvaccinated.

“We need to protect our children. I know it’s inconvenient and it’s not what we want to do, but I do not want to be intubating your child next to keep them alive,” Henry said.

“You need to get masked, and you need to get vaccinated,” Chambers said.

In the most recent report available from the Tennessee Department of Health, Greene County had 35 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday. The county had 228 active cases.

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