Health officials urge precautions as COVID-19 cases rapidly increase

Dr. Clay Runnels, chief physician executive at Ballad Health, called upon folks around the region to do their part in slowing the spread of COVID-19. PHOTO BY DAVE ONGIE

Thursday, July 9, marked a grim milestone for the Appalachian Highlands: the highest number of new coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases recorded in a single day.

With 94 new cases reported in 21 counties of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, officials with Ballad Health are warning community members that not only is COVID-19 continuing its spread, but the pandemic is on the brink of becoming much worse.

“The number of COVID-19 patients in our hospitals is rapidly increasing on a weekly basis,” said Dr. Clay Runnels, chief physician executive of Ballad Health. “The disease is spreading more rapidly than ever, and it poses a serious threat to our community. Each of us is at risk, and it’s up to each of us to take precautions to slow the disease.

“If you’re clamoring for a return to normal, but not wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing or being hypervigilant about hand hygiene, you’re not helping our community reach that goal. In fact, by refusing to take sensible steps to protect yourself and others, you could be causing serious damage to you and those around you.”

Dr. Runnels expressed further concern that, with the steep increase of local COVID-19 cases, Ballad Health’s hospitals and medical facilities could become overwhelmed, leading to overflowing intensive care units (ICUs) and supply shortages that have struck other hospitals and health systems in places such as Texas, Arizona, Florida and New York.

As of July 9, nearly 20 percent of Ballad Health’s ventilators were in use, and the health system’s beds were at more than 75 percent capacity. Dr. Runnels and other Ballad Health leaders are now worried that, as the year extends into flu season, the number of people in the Appalachian Highlands who need major healthcare interventions will outpace hospital units’ capacities and staffing levels.

“Unless major steps are taken now, by everyone, to slow COVID-19, we could be facing a situation in which we have to make serious decisions about how we deliver care, and if we’re going to be able to provide certain healthcare services for everyone who needs them,” Dr. Runnels said. “These kinds of difficult choices might have seemed far-fetched once upon a time, but as the COVID-19 curve climbs higher, that scenario becomes more and more real.”

An estimated 5 to 10 percent of people who contract COVID-19 are eventually hospitalized. COVID-19 hospitalizations within Ballad Health have ranged from pediatric patients to the elderly.

“Cases are being found in travelers, college students, large businesses, large group gatherings, churches, athletes and restaurant workers, along with a major increase in unknown community exposure, as the level of the virus in our communities continues increasing,” said Jamie Swift, Ballad Health’s corporate director of infection prevention.

“The data is very, very real – I called more people to tell them they have COVID-19 on July 9 than I had any other day since the pandemic began. We also have more COVID-19 patients receiving care in our hospitals than at any other point in the pandemic.”

Ballad Health leaders also note some people with COVID-19 can remain completely asymptomatic, which can cause them to spread the illness to others without realizing it. Additionally, the virus can have a two-week incubation period, and many people who contract COVID-19 are sick for two weeks or more before being hospitalized, which means data often reflects infections that occur weeks beforehand.

“What you do now will affect the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations two weeks from now,” Swift said. “The virus is very much here, and ignoring the data and warnings will not help us return to normal – it will just push it farther and farther away.”

Infection prevention measures encouraged by Ballad Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other leading health organizations include:

• Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth

• Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces daily, such as tables, doorknobs, phones and countertops

• Covering your coughs and sneezes

• Maintaining at least 6 feet of separation from people outside your household

• Monitoring your health daily, paying particular attention for fever, cough or shortness of breath

• Washing your hands often, or using a hand sanitizer that is at least 60% alcohol

• Wearing a cloth face covering at all times in public areas

• If you choose to travel, research your destination, assess the risk and consider quarantining upon your return.

This is the time for everyone to heed warnings from health and infection prevention experts,” Dr. Runnels said. “We can do better in the Appalachian Highlands than other parts of the country. It’s not too late to start wearing a mask and taking COVID-19 as the serious threat that it is. Your actions today could help save multiple lives – even your own.”


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