JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — Regional health care workers continue to scramble with the surge of cases seen in Ballad Health facilities, and officials stressed again on Wednesday that a vast majority of COVID-19 inpatients are unvaccinated.

Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said that of the health system’s 396 COVID-19 hospitalizations, 92% are unvaccinated.

“That percentage is even higher for our patients receiving critical care,” Swift said. “Ninety-eight percent of our patients in the ICU are unvaccinated.”

Swift revealed that of those depending on ventilators to breathe, 97% have yet to receive their COVID-19 vaccines.

While the average age of Ballad Health’s vaccinated COVID-19 inpatients stands at 72 years old, this plummets to an average of 59 years for those who are unvaccinated and fighting the virus.

“We can turn the tide today if we can get everyone vaccinated who’s able to get the shot,” Swift said.

Earlier at the briefing, Ballad Health Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton revealed further inpatient details — the facility is currently treating three pregnant women with COVID-19.

“We have learned that this virus is very dangerous for pregnant women, so that’s very concerning,” Deaton said.

According to Deaton, as of mid-September, a third of patients — 32.6% — who have died within Ballad Health facilities had been battling COVID-19.

Lagging indicator

Deaton said that Ballad officials project an increase of COVID-related deaths in its facilities within the next two weeks.

“So far in September, right at 1/3 of the patients that are expiring across our facilities are due to COVID-19,” he said. “This by the way – 32.6% – is close to the highest we’ve seen since last January so we’re right at that highest number of deaths as a percent.”

And this trend could continue. Looking at data on COVID-19-related deaths from the last surge, as case counts dropped, death totals did not.

If the current surge follows the winter’s trend, deaths will represent a higher and higher proportion of cases once cases flatten and begin to decline.

Last December saw nearly 15,000 cases and a rate of 15 deaths per 1,000. Cases dropped to just over 8,000 in January but deaths were up slightly — almost doubling deaths per 1,000 cases to 28.6, and in February cases plummeted to less than 3,000 but with more than 100 deaths — the lagging indicator pushed the death per 1,000 case rate to near 40.

Ballad modeling indicates that the higher number of COVID admissions is lowering from previous projections, but that’s not the case for projected deaths.

“Unfortunately, we are expecting to see again, some higher and more increases in our deaths over the next few weeks,” Deaton said.

To mandate or not

President Joe Biden announced last week that COVID-19 vaccines would be required for all employees for companies that have over 100 workers. Either that or administer weekly testing of the unvaccinated employees.

Healthcare providers accepting Medicare and Medicaid funding would also fall under such a mandate.

“It does impact us because we do have obviously more than 100 team members and we do receive funds and participate in Medicare, Medicaid,” Deaton said.

At the Wednesday briefing, Deaton maintained Ballad’s “wait-and-see” stance on the mandate until guidance is released by the federal government on how to implement the requirement, but said the system is listening to its employees.

“Right now, we are listening to our team members; we have advocates on both sides of the mandate issue. People who really think it’s important that we do have a mass mandate and those who do not want to have that,” he said. “Our goal is unchanged at this point, and that is to get as many people vaccinated as possible.”

Deaton said he believes Ballad Health would lose employees if a mandate was to be imposed — an issue for the hospital system already strapped for staff.

“Obviously we have to have every team member we can take care of our patients because of that very high number of cases that we have.”

He added that 63% of Ballad Health team members are fully vaccinated, with the medical staff at 97% vaccinated.

Officials revealed that since December 2020, Ballad Health has administered 2,208 doses of monoclonal antibody treatment, with 311 of those doses administered within the past week.

Compared to statewide vaccination rates, Ballad’s service area trails behind both Tennessee and Virginia’s rates.

The entire briefing is available below:

Ballad used state-reported data to reveal that there have been 49 COVID-19-related deaths in its 21-county service area in the past seven days.

The following is a breakdown of Wednesday’s COVID-19 data provided by Ballad Health:

  • Total number of COVID-19 patients in the hospital: 396 (+5)
  • Total number of COVID-19 PUIs (patient under investigation): 24 (+12)
  • Total COVID-19 admissions: 53 (+5)
  • Total COVID-19 discharges: 48 (+3)
  • COVID-19 patients in the Intensive Care Unit: 104 (-4)
  • COVID-19 patients on a ventilator: 79 (-5)
  • Pediatric patients in Niswonger Children’s Hospital: 1 (-1)
  • Percent of population fully vaccinated: 40.5% (+.01%)

For complete coronavirus coverage, CLICK HERE.