JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — The head of Ballad Health says anyone who doubts the seriousness of COVID-19 would change their minds if they witnessed someone fighting to recover from it.

“Once you see how somebody suffers through this in the hospital, you become a believer really quick,” Ballad Health President and CEO Alan Levine said in his first in-depth interview with News Channel 11 since the start of the pandemic.

Levine removed his face mask only after distancing himself by more than six feet to answer News Channel 11’s questions about the virus that he says has claimed lives and radically changed the health system he helped create.

“Imagine not being able to breathe,” Levine said. “Imagine having blood clots that are potentially life-threatening. Imagine having to lay on your stomach because that’s the only way you can breathe. Imagine coding and going into cardiac arrest. All of those things are potential effects of this. I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”

Levine revealed dozens of Ballad employees have tested positive for COVID-19 over the past few months. As many as a dozen have been hospitalized, he said.

“We have team members in the hospital now fighting for their lives because they have been exposed, because they were helping other people,” he said.

Levine says Ballad now has an adequate supply of personal protective equipment and ventilators thanks to preparation and the pause on elective surgeries last spring, a move mandated by Gov. Bill Lee that he says cost Ballad about $130 million dollars in revenue. Levine said the was partially offset by federal grants.

He says plans are in the works for as many as 250 COVID-19 designated beds.

But Levine says Ballad still faces a real risk.

“My real concern is if there’s enough staff – not just here but all over the Southeast. Is there enough staff to take care of the patients who might need help.”

Levine said 60 percent of the approximately 1,300 employees people laid off last April are now back at work. Most of those furloughed were corporate and administrative positions, Ballad said.

“There’s still many that are not back yet. I’d like to have them all back that may not happen.”

Levine says he and his team are planning as if the pandemic will continue with no expected end date.

“I don’t think its healthy for the community if Ballad assumes there’s an end,” he said. “We have to continue to plan as if its going to be here. No one will be happier than we will be when there’s a vaccine.”