With “drastic” increases in cases of COVID-19 across Northeast Tennessee, Ballad Health officials warned Friday the pandemic could worsen quickly.
More than 760 new cases of the virus have been reported across 10 Northeast Tennessee counties during the past two weeks — a 53.7% increase in total cases — according to the Tennessee Department of Health.
Both Sullivan and Washington counties each registered more than 110 new cases during the past two weeks while Hamblen County continues to be this region’s hot spot with 277 cases over the same period.
Cases are also increasing across Southwest Virginia, but at much slower rates.
“We’re really on the brink, in this area, of the pandemic becoming much worse,” Jamie Swift, Ballad’s corporate director of infection prevention, said during a news briefing. “We need for our communities to see what is happening and to partner with us. We are certainly starting to see this disease spread. It is spreading rapidly, and it’s spreading in various groups. It’s no longer clusters, it’s no longer certain groups we can identify and limit that. We are seeing lots of community spread, various avenues; various groups. There is COVID anywhere you go, at this point.”
On Friday, Ballad was treating 29 COVID-positive patients in its hospitals — the most since the pandemic began — and those numbers are increasing daily, she said.
“Everyone is at risk. … I just want to remind you this is a novel virus. We certainly do not know how it’s going to affect every single individual. We’re seeing a vast array of symptoms so please do not get comfortable in the fact you’re young and healthy.”
Eric Deaton, Ballad’s chief operating officer, said COVID-positive patients currently range from pediatric to elderly, with the average age about 60. About a dozen are being treated in intensive care units.
“Our COVID-19 inpatients are doubling about every week,” Deaton said. “If this continues to spread at the rate it is today, we’ll have well over 100 patients with COVID-19 across our system. That would stress the system greatly.”
Ballad forecasts between 5% and 10% of area cases will require hospitalization.
The ICU at Johnson City Medical Center is currently at capacity, but the system has additional capacity and plans to create more if needed, according to Dr. Clay Runnels.
Ballad presently has about 125 beds dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients. If cases continue to rise, Ballad may take steps to increase capacity by again stopping elective surgeries and procedures, Deaton said, plus possibly limiting public visitation to its facilities.
Patients contracted the disease through travel, in large and small business settings, from large gatherings, churches, among athletes and a “fairly large spread” among restaurant workers, Deaton said.
“As our numbers continue to climb, we’ll have more and more hospitalizations in the future,” Deaton said. “This data is very real, and it’s very alarming. We need everyone, regardless of how you feel about this — whether you support it or not — it’s really important you wear a mask and you physically social distance and you’re very vigilant about washing your hands and using hand sanitizer appropriately. Ignoring what’s happening and acting like you’re not going to be impacted is not going to make it go away; it’s only going to make it worse.”
Harvard issues risk rankings
Tennessee currently ranks 10th among U.S. states for risk of contracting COVID-19, according to the Harvard Global Health Institute. Tennessee has a seven-day rolling average of 21.9 new cases per 100,000 people. Arizona has the nation’s highest risk at 48.1 cases per 100,000, followed by Florida, Louisiana, South Carolina and Texas. Virginia ranks 28th with an average of seven new cases per 100,000.
In Tennessee, Hamblen County ranks fourth out of 95 counties with an average of 29.5 new cases per 100,000. Nearby tourist destination Sevier County ranks among the top five at 29.1. Most Northeast counties, including Washington, 7, and Sullivan, 6.1, presently rank well down the state.
Vanderbilt tracking transmission rate
A July 6 memo from the Vanderbilt University Department of Health Policy shows Tennessee’s average virus transmission rate — the number of uninfected people who catch the virus from someone who is infected — is between 1.15 to 1.3. An average of “well below 1.0 for an extended period of time” is needed to suppress an epidemic, according to the memo.
The most recent Vanderbilt model assumes 95% of cases are mild enough to avoid hospitalization and 0.7% of infected cases result in death.
At that time, the statewide transmission average was 1.13, which forecast 1,000 concurrent statewide hospitalizations in late July or early August.
“Should the transmission number rise to 1.25, the 1,000-hospitalization threshold would be reached earlier in mid-July,” according to the document. “Only in a scenario where the transmission number is reduced to 1.0 or below would the state avoid 1,000 hospitalizations in 2020.”
Southwest Virginia cases also rising
The 10 counties and two cities of Southwest Virginia experienced a 25.3% increase in cases over the past two weeks with 86 cases reported.
Bristol, Virginia reported six cases during the period, Washington County, 13 cases, and Smyth County, 10.
“We still are seeing regular increases in cases across our district,” according to Breanne Forbes Hubbard, population health manager of the Mount Rogers Health District. “We hope that our communities are continuing to take good protective measures for themselves and their neighbors — social distancing, wearing face coverings, avoiding crowded places, hand washing and staying home while sick. We know that these steps are helping us stay as safe as we can be.”
The only hot spot in Southwest Virginia is in Galax and Carroll County, at the eastern end of the Mount Rogers service area, with more than 500 combined cases. Galax has 63 cases per 100,000 — the highest risk average in Virginia — while Carroll County’s is 10.1, according to Harvard.
“In the Twin County area, cases started in a few large families that had social gatherings and those who became ill worked in several different industries. From there, cases have spread throughout the community,” Forbes Hubbard wrote in an email. “Galax has the highest rate of cases per 100,000 in the entire Commonwealth. It is really important for residents of the rest of Southwest Virginia to understand that COVID-19 can spread quickly and easily through large groups of contacts and that the only things preventing the rest of the region from high numbers of cases like what the Twin County area has been experiencing are social distancing, face masks, avoiding crowds, hand washing and staying home when sick.”
Other cities and counties in far Southwest Virginia rank well below the state average on the Harvard risk map, ranging from Norton’s 0, Scott County’s 0.7 and Bristol’s 0.9 rolling seven-day average to Lee County’s 3 and Wythe County’s 3.5 active cases per 100,000 average.
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