Some COVID-19 safety restrictions are returning as the delta variant of COVID-19 spreads across the region and case numbers rise.
Ballad Health will be delaying all elective procedures that require overnight stays in the hospital, and the Greene County Courthouse has once again instituted social distancing guidelines that limit the number of people allowed in the courthouse at one time.
Meanwhile, Cedar Hill Cumberland Presbyterian Church on Newport Highway will host a vaccination clinic Monday.
Greene County’s COVID-19 case count continues to climb. The surge in new cases has been powered by the more contagious delta variant of the virus coupled with relatively low vaccination rates in the county.
According to the Tennessee Department of Health, there were 253 new COVID-19 cases reported in Greene County during the seven-day period Aug. 5-Aug. 11.
Three new deaths from COVID-19 were also reported in the county during that period.
There were 170 new COVID-19 cases reported in Greene County during the previous seven-day period.
Out of the 253 new cases reported Aug. 5-Aug. 11, 192 were in people under the age of 50. Eighty-two were in people and children under the age of 20, which is double the number of new cases in that age group the previous week.
The rapid rise in new cases has already pushed hospitals in the region managed by Ballad Health to their limits.
According to information shared Wednesday, Ballad was already facing a staffing shortage and has now lost 116 more staff members due to positive COVID-19 tests or COVID-19 symptoms.
Ballad hospitals have reached 90% capacity, according to Ballad Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton, with ICU capacity close to maxing out.
Ballad will convert post-surgical recovery units into temporary ICU rooms as hospitals get pushed past their limits.
The increase in COVID-19 cases has also led Ballad to defer all elective procedures that require an overnight stay.
Beginning Monday, non-emergent surgical cases in both healthy and unhealthy people will be postponed.
“This was not an easy decision to make; however, it is necessary to preserve manpower and hospital resources to address the COVID-19 pandemic in the Appalachian Highlands,” said Eric Deaton, Ballad Health’s chief operating officer and incident commander of its Corporate Emergency Operations Center.
“Just because these procedures are elective or non-emergent, it doesn’t mean they’re not needed. People who are waiting for these procedures are in pain, and their quality of life is being impacted,” Deaton said. “But we must address the most life-threatening conditions first, and right now, COVID-19 is posing a major threat to the lives of thousands of people in our region – even if it is now largely preventable with a vaccine.”
To determine which procedures are classified as non-emergent, Ballad Health will follow the Elective Surgery Acuity Scale, which was developed by St. Louis University and is recommended by the American College of Surgeons as hospitals and health systems respond to challenges posed by COVID-19.
Postponed procedures will include low-acuity surgeries for healthy and unhealthy patients that require an overnight stay during recovery. These cases may include certain cardiac, orthopedic and other systemic surgery determined to be not-emergent.
The pause on elective, non-emergent surgical cases requiring an overnight stay also includes already-scheduled procedures. Affected patients are currently being notified.
Additionally, Ballad Health will require all elective surgical patients whose procedures are still taking place to obtain a negative COVID-19 test before arriving to the hospital, including patients who have been fully vaccinated.
Along with input from medical staff, Ballad Health will reassess the pandemic’s spread daily and will make a decision about continuing the pause or resuming cases on a weekly basis, based upon staffing and resource capacity.
“As we move forward, we will continue constantly monitoring and addressing the situation and doing everything possible to alleviate the effects of the pandemic in our region,” said Dr. Clay Runnels, Ballad Health’s chief physician executive. “Of course, the best options to contain the virus – wearing masks indoors, in large groups and, yes, in schools, and getting a COVID-19 vaccine if you’re 12 years of age or older – are out of our control and in the hands of our community members now. We urge them to be informed and make the right choices for themselves and those around them.”
In response to rising case counts, the Third Judicial District has entered an order to restrict access to the Greene County Courthouse and reinstate COVID-19 mitigation measures. According to Greene County Mayor Kevin Morrison, all persons entering the courthouse will be required to wear a mask, maintain social distance, and have their temperature taken.
A large tent has been reinstalled in front of the courthouse to provide temporary shade and shelter for those waiting to enter the courthouse. Litigants and witnesses will be called on a case-by-case basis by courthouse security when their cases are to be heard.
These measures do not apply to the Courthouse Annex or any other Greene County Government building. According to Morrison, there are no plans to reinstate any masking requirements by Greene County in any other offices, businesses, industries, restaurants or venues at this time.
The Northeast Regional Health Office serving Carter, Greene, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Unicoi and Washington Counties has also reopened the Regional COVID-19 Information Line at 423-979-4689. The information line is available Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
“We want to be able to provide answers to general questions from the public due to the increase of COVID-19 activity in the Northeast Tennessee Region and across the state,” said Rebekah English, director of the Northeast Regional Health Office.
Greene County’s case total for the pandemic now stands at 8,650 with 163 deaths in the county due to the virus.
Ballad Health officials urge vaccination as the best way to protect yourself and others from the virus.
“I would encourage everyone to get vaccinated. It is the one thing we can do as a community to stop the spread of this delta variant,” said Deaton. “It can save your life and someone else’s life.”
The percentage of residents fully vaccinated in Greene county stands at about 36.06%, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Statewide, about 40% of residents have been fully vaccinated. Nationally, 58.9% of the population aged 12 or older has been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers fo Disease Control and Prevention.
Cedar Hill Cumberland Presbyterian Church, located at 4170 Newport Highway, will host a vaccination clinic conducted by the Tennessee Department of Health on Monday from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
The clinic will be administering the first dose of Moderna vaccinations in the church parking lot. No appointments are necessary.
The minister at Cedar Hill, Andrew Eppard, sees the vaccine clinic as a way for the church to help the community.
“It is a way that we can provide a service to the community after a year of having difficulty with outreach due to COVID-19. One of our elders brought up the idea of hosting a vaccine clinic, and we thought we would do it to provide another avenue for people to get vaccinated,” Eppard said.
COVID-19 has touched Cedar Hill as it has many other communities according to Eppard.
“Several people in our church have had the virus, and we have had a couple deaths as well, unfortunately. The number of people attending church here are down, and our giving is down as well,” Eppard said. “The mission of a church is to make disciples and spread the good news, but COVID-19 has hindered us because it has made it hard to reach out to others safely.”
COVID-19 affected how worship was conducted as well.
“At one point we had abbreviated services and every other row marked off for social distancing purposes. We encouraged masks and provided them at the door. Most Sundays everyone wore a mask, including myself except for when I was preaching,” Eppard said. “We also took hymnals and Bibles out of the pews, had the church sanitized every Monday and Saturday, and did not sing during worship. We host a monthly dinner that we invite the community to, and we were able to continue that by making the dinner drive-through.”
Those precautions had been relaxed for the past few months, but as cases begin rising once more, Eppard says he expects that sanitization measures will be reinstituted soon.
Eppard says that vaccination is an individual choice, and that people should be respectful of each other regardless of a person’s decision to take precautions or not. Eppard believes neither side should blame the other.
However, he said that it does not mean that someone has weak faith in God if they wear a mask or get vaccinated.
“There is nothing wrong with taking precautions. I hear people who are anti-vaccination accusing people of not having faith if they wear a mask or get vaccinated. They say that God is in control and if they get the virus then they are going to get the virus. Taking precautions like wearing a mask or getting vaccinated does not mean you are weak in faith,” Eppard said. “I’m not going to walk in the middle of the street, because chances are I’ll get hit by a car. I’m going to take precautions and stay out of the street because that helps keep me safe. People get the flu shot and take medicine as precautions to stay healthy. If I’m sick I take medicine. People need to make informed choices, and respect others’ choices.”
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 open 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Friday.