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Ballad hospitals have reached 90% capacity according to Ballad Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton.

Intensive Care Units are also at risk of becoming full.

“The numbers we are currently seeing reflect what we thought we would see in September, not now,” Deaton said Wednesday. “We are way ahead of where we expected to be at this time.”

Currently, there are 160 COVID-19 patients hospitalized in the Ballad system. Forty-four of those patients are in the ICU, and 26 are on ventilators. Four children are hospitalized with COVID-19 at Niswonger Children’s Hospital, and two children are in the ICU.

Ballad reported 19 COVID-19 deaths in the region for the past seven days.

“Our team is being stretched to their very limits today,” Deaton said, “It doesn’t have to be this way. We have very effective vaccines that can be used to protect our community.”

Ballad reported 246 COVID-19 cases for the week of July 4 and has recorded 2,365 in the last seven days. That is about an 850% increase in positive cases.

According to Deaton, the dramatic increase is different from past COVID-19 surges. Previously, Ballad saw a more incremental stair-step approach to case increases, but this time the increase in cases has been sharp.

If hospitalizations continue to rise, Ballad will convert post-surgical recovery units into temporary ICU rooms.

The system is getting close to postponing elective procedures as it did last winter in order to focus all its efforts on attending to acute patients and the surge of COVID-19 patients.

Ballad is preparing for the a worst case scenario surge with a depleted team.

There are currently 116 Ballad Health workers out of work because they have either tested positive for COVID-19 or have symptoms of the virus and are waiting on test results.

“We are stretched very thin and burn out is a real problem,” President of Ballad Health Medical Associates Dr. Mark Patterson said, “We have to remember that nurses have to take care of all of the other people in the hospital, not just the COVID-19 patients.”

Ballad is reaching out to retired nurses who may be able to assist staff at area hospitals, even if it is just for a few hours a week. Ballad is urging any retired nurses interested in helping out to call 423-302-3299.

“The worst is yet to come,” Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jaime Swift said.

According to Ballad’s projections, it could have as many as 526 COVID-19 patients in the system in the next few weeks in a worst-case scenario, while the best case scenario approximates 300 patients hospitalized in the next few weeks. Ballad’s record number for COVID-19 hospitalizations is 361.

Ballad also expects the region could see as many as 82 deaths in a week by the end of August.

Deaton also mentioned that around 95% of those hospitalized are unvaccinated, and implored those in the region to get vaccinated in order to protect themselves and those they love.

“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 COVID-19 test positivity rate for the region was 15.4% on Wednesday. The target rate is less than 5%, according to Swift.

According to Swift, about one third of new positive cases in the last seven days were in children, and she reiterated Ballad’s support for vaccinations for all people including children ages 12 and up, and mask mandates in schools.

“Masks keep students in schools, which is everyone’s goal,” said Swift. “We strongly recommend vaccination to anyone who is eligible, including kids. It is important that kids that are too young to be vaccinated are surrounded by vaccinated individuals. That is the best way to keep them safe.”

Patterson implored school boards in the region to take the delta variant COVID-19 surge seriously, and to implement mask mandates.

“As a previous member of a school board, I understand the political pressure that position carries, but remember the health and well-being of the children are your responsibility. Don’t abdicate that. Be willing to take the heat for the safety of those you are responsible for.”

Patterson implored area residents to seek the appropriate level of care for their medical issues.

“We don’t want people to wait hours for care in the emergency room. We have 160 COVID-19 patients taking up beds in our hospitals, which means we are having to treat some stroke, heart attack, and serious injury patients in our emergency rooms. This is leading to very long wait times for everyone else in our emergency rooms,” Patterson said. “Please assess yourself and seek the appropriate level of care. Begin with your primary care physician, and if they cannot be reached then the next step would be to go to one of our Urgent Care Centers that stand ready to treat illnesses and injuries that do not require admittance to the emergency room.”

“Those suffering from a heart attack, stroke, or major injury should go to the emergency room. Patients that come to the emergency room that are not suffering from these issues and that should be somewhere else will have to wait for a long time for care,” said Patterson.

Greene County reported 35 new COVID-19 cases on Tuesday, 51 new cases on Monday, and two new COVID-19 deaths on Monday, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

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.