Ballad Health: 3 new COVID-19 cases in our region, 1 in Unicoi County

Local Coronavirus Coverage

Officials explain plans for potential "COVID-19 hospitals"

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- In a news conference Thursday, Ballad Health officials confirmed three new cases of COVID-19 in the Tri-Cities.

Jamie Swift, Ballad Health’s Corporate Director of Infection Prevention, said the new cases are reported from Sullivan and Unicoi counties in Tennessee, and Washington County in Virginia.

Swift said those three confirmed cases will probably not be reflected in the state’s reported numbers today due to expected lags in the reporting process.

Officials said there have been 11 reported cases at Ballad, eight of which are in people between the ages of 21 and 40. Health officials confirmed 20 positive cases in the region yesterday.

Swift echoed leaders from across the region, calling for physical distancing as the region reaches what others have called a “tipping point.

“We can either really slow this down, or we can see it really start to take off from here,” she said.

Ballad CEO Alan Levine said that officials are seeing evidence of community spread in the region. He defined “community spread” as cases of COVID-19 that cannot be traced to recent travel or interaction with another person who has the virus.

“We’re at the base of that curve,” he said. “We’re really starting to see it.”

Ballad will continue following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when it comes to determining screening criteria for testing, Levine said.

Levine addressed Ballad’s decision to designate Lonesome Pine Hospital in Wise County as a regional “COVID-19 hospital.”

He confirmed that “plans are in place” for similar facilities in Tennessee and the southwest market, but withheld any additional information.

He said Lonesome Pine functioning as a specialized COVID-19 hospital will help balance the capacity of the region’s three tertiary hospitals – Holston Valley Medical Center, Bristol Regional Medical Center and Johnson City Medical Center.

“Each of those hospitals has finite capacity for ICU, intensive care, pulmonary services and obviously ventilator capacity,” he said.

“Our strategy is designed around trying to make sure patients utilizing those high acuity, high-intensity services that they have the ability to access those services beyond that need (COVID-19 care) throughout the region.”

He described the prospective COVID-19 facilities as “transitory” – those exhibiting symptoms of the illness will be assessed at such facilities, where doctors will make decisions for patient treatment if there is an outbreak.

Patients with more severe illness and a greater chance of death would be transferred to one of the region’s three tertiary hospitals.

“If we could do everything we can to keep the strain off of the major tertiary assets, where we have the most resources, that’s our objective,” he said.

He stressed that the announcements for Lonesome Pine are just precautional in the case of a surge of cases. Currently, leadership at Lonesome Pine are working with Wise County officials to develop protocol in the event that the hospital is transitioned to a temporary COVID-19 facility.

He promised that Ballad will communicate developments in that strategy as they are finalized. He said there is currently no evidence of a surge.

“The time to build the plane is not while you’re flying it, you want to build the plane before you have to fly it,” he said. “That’s the process we’re going through right now – we’re sort of building the plane.”

Watch the full press conference here:

For more coverage on the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, click here.

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