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Ballad Health is sounding the alarm on a possible new COVID-19 wave in the region fueled by the delta variant of the virus.

“We are in a place that we don’t want to be,” Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine said.

Levine said there has been a dramatic increase in delta variant COVID-19 cases in the region over the last month and warned that the situation could deteriorate rapidly.

“As we see an increase of COVID-19 cases, our system is going to get pushed to close to the breaking point as we are dealing with an increase of other acute health issues as well as a nursing shortage,” Levine said.

Ballad is experiencing a nursing shortage in a situation similar to many other hospital systems across the United States. After working through a grueling year-long pandemic, many nurses either retired or found other jobs.

“Our nurses have been incredible, but they are tired,” Levine said.

Ballad Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton explained the seriousness of the Delta variant that has triggered a surge of cases in the region.

“On the 4th of July we had only 20 hospitalized COVID-19 patients, but today we have 46. Of those 46 patients, 12 are in intensive care units and six are on ventilators,” Deaton said.

Ballad projects there could be as many as 120 patients hospitalized with the virus by October. Ballad currently has the capacity to accommodate 75 COVID-19 patients. If that number is surpassed, Ballad would have to make changes as its staff is stretched.

These changes would include the reintroduction of special COVID-19 units and possibly deferring elective patient care.

Deaton also explained that the average age of those hospitalized or dying from COVID-19 has decreased sharply over the last month in the region.

The average age of those hospitalized from COVID-19 has dropped from 66 to 60 over the last three weeks, and the average age of those dying from COVID-19 dropped from 74 to 69. This decrease in age is due to lower vaccination rates among younger demographics, as higher age demographics are well-protected through high vaccination rates.

According to Ballad, the delta variant is much more transmissible than any other strain of COVID-19. It spreads in less exposure time, and often spreads to three or four people at a time rather than just one or two as was often the case with past strains of the virus.

“The delta variant is very contagious, and we also only have a 37% vaccination rate across our region. For some reason, now that we have a life-saving vaccine we are seeing people not taking it. We would plead that people please get the vaccine,” Deaton said.

GREENE COUNTY CASES

COVID-19 cases have continued to surge in Greene County over the last three weeks, and the number of new cases in the county doubled once again last week.

There were 101 new COVID-19 cases reported in Greene County during the seven-day period July 22-28.

There were 47 new COVID-19 cases reported in Greene County during the previous seven-day period.

Out of the 101 new cases reported July 22-28, 73 were in people younger than 50.

This disparity in age demographics affected by the new surge is due to younger demographics having lower vaccination rates, and therefore less protection against the virus, health officials say. People over the age of 50 are vaccinated at a much higher rate than younger ages, and therefore have broader and better defense against the virus.

There was also one new COVID-19 death in Greene County during the last seven days.

Greene County’s case total for the pandemic now stands at 8,226, with 160 deaths due to the virus.

The percentage of residents fully vaccinated in Greene County stands at about 35.2%, according to the Tennessee Department of Health. Statewide, about 39.1% of residents have been fully vaccinated. Nationally, 57.7% of the population aged 12 or older has been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Levine mentioned the importance of getting vaccinated.

“There is one thing everyone can do to mitigate this surge, and that is get vaccinated. There are a lot of people releasing information questioning the vaccine, and those claims are wrong,” Levine said.

According to Levine 96% of those in the hospital with COVID-19 are unvaccinated, and 99% of those dying from COVID-19 are unvaccinated.

“Make no mistake,” Levine said “our number one priority is to keep people from dying, and the cases and deaths we are seeing right now are preventable. We are seeing people on ventilators gasping for their last breath, and that could have been prevented. It is hard to watch.”

As a new surge in COVID-19 begins to grip the region well over a year since the beginning of the pandemic, Levine made it clear that the end of the pandemic is overdue.

“We all want to live our lives, but people that choose not to get vaccinated are going to prolong this pandemic,” Levine said.

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.