JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – With nearly 300 Ballad Health team members in isolation, officials announced 350 open nursing and bedside care positions within the health system on Wednesday as COVID-19 cases continue surging across the country and region.

Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift reported that 281 Ballad staff members are currently in isolation or quarantine because they’ve either tested positive for COVID-19, are showing symptoms for the disease and are waiting test results, or they’ve been in contact with someone who has it.

She said this is a trend mirrored across the nation, and that it is exacerbating an existing nursing shortage seen across the country.

“If you’re not concerned for your own safety, think about how the spread of COVID-19 is endangering the dedicated, selfless people serving on the front lines as well as stretching them beyond their limits,” she said.

Chief Physician Executive Dr. Clay Runnels said that Ballad is seeking to fill 350 nursing and bedside care positions. The health system has also implemented temporary pay increases for certain positions in an effort to attract more applicants.

Ballad is also lifting full-time equivalancey requirements for registered nurses, licensed practical nurses working in in-patient care units and emergency departments. Runnels said that current, unemployed, licensed professionals may apply, along with retirees or former Ballad team members who have been unemployed from the health system for at least 60 days.

“We’ve been extremely concerned about how this pandemic is affecting our ability to staff our facilities,” Runnels said. “Our nurses and caregivers are heavily burdened by the increase caseloads with the community spread of the disease and they’re also falling sick and unable to work.”

John Betts, an administrator at Bristol Regional Medical Center and hospital corpsman Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, reported on his 6-month deployment to New York City as part of a national pandemic response team.

Betts described working in temporary medical facilities stationed outside of hospitals, warning against the possibility of a similar situation developing in the Tri-Cities.

“Although our population density is not the same as NYC, if our community does not work together, we could face the need for outside reinforcements,” Betts said. “My time deployed taught me not to fear but respect the disease.”

Swift’s comments outlined grim data for the region. Monday returned the highest daily count for the region with 631 new cases reported, Swift said, with surges in southwest Virginia counties – Swift said Smyth, Washington, Wise and Tazewell counties all reported more than 25 cases on Monday.

Ballad reported its highest number of inpatient cases so far on Tuesday, with 217 patients receiving COVID-19 care in Ballad facilities. While that number didn’t change as of Wednesday, Swift noted that the health system discharged more than 30 patients from Monday.

“It is not the same 217 patients,” she said. “What we’re seeing is we’re discharging patients, but we’re filling right back up.”

Twenty percent of all current hospitalizations at Ballad are COVID-related, Swift continued, and officials worked more than 30 COVID-19 cases in patients under the age of 18 over the weekend, a metric she described as “higher than normal.”

Swift said at least one case was directly connected to Halloween events such as trick-or-treating.

“We do expect that several others are related to that as well,” she said. “We’ll likely continue to see Halloween-related COVID-19 cases over the next week.”

Of the 217 COVID-19 cases Ballad officials are treating, 39 patients are hospitalized in the intensive care unit and 23 patients are on ventilators, Swift reported. There are currently six people under investigation for COVID-19 awaiting test results.

Swift reported there are 29 available COVID-19-dedicated beds and five available ICU beds. The positivity rate is at 16% today.

Swift ended her comments with a familiar request – for community members to get their flu shots.

“We’re still early in the flu season, we’re not seeing a lot of flu cases yet, but a bad flu season – even equal to what we had last year – will further strain and overrun our resources.

“We can’t handle that.”