The past week has been record setting for Ballad Health and the region in terms of new cases of COVID-19 and hospitalizations of coronavirus patients.
If more people do not begin to take precautions to prevent the spread of the virus, those records will be surpassed and the coming months will be difficult ones, officials from the health system warned Wednesday during a weekly COVID-19 briefing.
Nov. 15 brought the highest daily count of new cases, 650, in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia and the highest number of cases in one week at 3,246. Ballad Health also reported its highest number of COVID-19 patients hospitalized within the health system at 253, the highest count since the pandemic began.
The percentage of people with positive results for the virus among all those tested during a seven-day period also reached its highest point thus far at 19.2%, which corresponds to one in five testing positive, according to the health system.
“These enormous daily counts will over the next two to four weeks result in more hospitalizations and more deaths,” said Jamie Swift, chief infection prevention officer for Ballad Health. “And frankly, with Thanksgiving next week, we are extremely concerned and a little frightened about what happens the rest of the year.”
“Our health system and our team members are stretched beyond any reasonable expectation,” she said. “If we continue on this path, it is only a matter of time before someone who needs care can’t receive it because COVID-19 has overrun our hospitals and our team members. We have to keep emphasizing this, our statements and our reactions are not fear mongering. We are not trying spread fear or spread unnecessary tension. This is very real, it is very real to our team and it is very real to our community and what can happen.”
Eric Deaton, chief operating officer of Ballad Health, who is leading the system’s emergency response efforts to the virus, asked people to remember that data are not just numbers but represent individual people in this region.
“It impacts lives every single day in a very negative way for people we love across this region” Deaton said. I implore the community to take this seriously, don’t let it be political. We have to care for each other.”
“The time to make changes for the future is now, so we can impact the spread and have fewer cases going forward,” he continued.
On Wednesday, Greene County had 72 new cases of coronavirus and an additional death from the virus reported by the Tennessee Department of Health. That is the second most for the day in Northeast Tennessee. The county has 386 active cases of the virus, according to the report. No additional people were hospitalized locally from the illness in the 24-hour reporting period.
Since the pandemic began, 2,663 people have contracted the virus in Greene County, 67 people have died from the illness and 112 have required hospitalization, according to the state Department of Health. Locally, 2,210 are listed as having inactive cases of the virus, defined by the state as non-hospitalized people either 14 days past the onset of symptoms or a positive test if asymptomatic.
In Northeast Tennessee, 407 new cases were reported Wednesday and there are 3,053 active cases in the region.
The local new death was one of 53 reported across the state on Wednesday by the Department of Health. There were 4,472 new cases of the virus reported. Since the pandemic began, 325,201 people in the state have contracted the virus and 4,048 have died from the illness.
‘DOING THE RIGHT THING’Allison Johnson, who is nursing director in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at Johnson City Medical Center, thanked those in the community who are doing their part to slow the spread the of the virus.
“The simple acts of masking up, hand washing, social distancing, staying home when you are not feeling well — they are appreciated more than you will ever know and on behalf of the COVID-19 team at Johnson City Medical Center, we sincerely thank you.”
Swift also thanked people who are taking precautions to limit the spread.
“For everyone out there who listens to us and is taking precautions and being safe, we thank you and we see you,” she said. “Please do not become tired or allow the voices who disagree to dissuade you. You are truly doing the right thing. I know it feels like forever. I know it feels like, ‘how much longer do we have to do this?’ We cannot give in to pandemic fatigue. We desperately need you and we thank you and we continue to do the right thing.”
However, she said while everyone needs to be taking precautions, there are those who disagree with the precautions or are skeptical of the virus. Swift had some comments for them as well.
“There continues to be a disheartening and frankly devastating and dangerous rise in misinformation and warped perceptions,” she said. “To put it into completely plain language, COVID-19 is a real virus, infecting and hospitalizing thousands of people in the Appalachian Highlands, causing hundreds of local deaths and forever changing lives. Wearing masks in public is an absolutely preventative positive measures as is avoiding large crowds and gathering outside of your immediate household at this point.”
“The casual and sometimes intentional disregard of warnings and precautions is exacerbating the situation we find ourselves in now,” Swift continued.
She asked people to remember that the statistics shared are people who have families and friends. “They have their own stories and their stories are forever now changed if not cut short completely.”
The virus has also affected Ballad Health team members. Swift reported that 250 of the health system’s employees are currently in quarantine because they have tested positive for the virus or have symptoms.
As the number of coronavirus cases increase, Ballad Health has to implement new stages of its plans to create more capacity to care for the COVID-19 patients.
The system has already temporarily deferred elective surgeries that require an overnight stay to create more resources to treat virus patients. If numbers continue to rise, similar measures will likely be put into place, Deaton said.
What that means is probably more deferrals of other types of elective surgeries. The surgical personnel who would be performing these procedures would be deployed to other areas to care for coronavirus patients, he said.
While these surgeries are defined as elective, they are still important to the person who needs them and are needed for them to be their best, he said. Those people will have to suffer longer with their conditions if the elective surgeries are halted, he added.
Three-hundred COVID beds have been created thus far to care for patients, he said. At the end of December, projection models show that 350 people will be hospitalized with the virus if the current trend continues.
If the numbers increase to 400, the system might also have to convert surgical units into ICU wards to care for COVID-19 patients, he said.
The one bit of good news in the past week is news from two pharmaceutical companies about the promising results they have had with vaccines, Deaton said.
Ballad Health officials noted that the vaccine would be distributed in a phases with health care workers and those most at risk for the virus likely to receive it first, and it may take several months before it is available to the general public.
People will need to continue to take precautions such as mask wearing and social distancing even after the vaccine is given because it will not be 100% effective in preventing the virus, he said.
Use of convalescent plasma continues to have positive results, and people who have recovered from the virus or tested positive without symptoms are encouraged to consider donating plasma. Individuals can call Marsh Regional Blood Center at 423-408-7550 to get more information about donating.