JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Ballad Health is bracing for a troubling amount of COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks as the Delta variant spreads.

During a media briefing Wednesday, Ballad officials reported they have 125 COVID patients in their hospitals, with 11 more awaiting test results. Of that number, 33 are in Intensive Care Units.

17 of the ICU patients have been placed on ventilators. Ballad Health’s COVID-19 scorecard reports the average positivity rate in the Tri-Cities region is at 15%.

Ballad Health’s COVID-19 scorecard also reported that 37.4% of the population in the 21-county region Ballad covers has been fully vaccinated.

Health officials with Ballad Health are pleading with the community to get vaccinated against the virus if they have not yet done so. However, for the immediate future, the outlook already looks bleak.

“The tragic reality is the story is set for the next six weeks,” Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said Wednesday. “That’s how long it’s going to take both doses to become effective if people go get vaccinated today.”

Ballad Health Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton said in the briefing that the current wave of the virus could be worse than previous instances.

“Every indicator that we’re seeing right now is that this will be worse than what it was last winter,” Deaton said. “If you remember, we were at a peak of 361 patients at that time, and we’re showing the possibility of going to 400-500 inpatients or higher within the next few weeks.”

As the cases spike, Deaton says Ballad Health is returning to universal masking among employees and reinstituting the one visitor per patient policy. There are exceptions to that rule, chiefly that expectant mothers may have two visitors and allowances for end-of-life situations can be made.

To complicate matters, Ballad is facing its share of the national nursing and emergency room staff shortage.

“When we get full, sometimes what we have to do is transfer to other facilities outside our region,” Deaton said. “When we’re all full like this, we have the inability to transfer patients, and we have to make room for them here.”

Deaton said Ballad Health is actually making efforts to try to bring back retired nurses as a way to battle the shortage.

According to Deaton, Ballad Health will soon decide whether or not elective surgeries will continue.

The spike in the number of cases and the rise in severity is in correlation with the low vaccination rates in the region, according to Ballad Health. The resurgence of the virus comes right as students begin to return to the classroom.

“If we have spread in our schools, in our events, it is too late,” Swift said. “Now is the time to implement the prevention measures such as masks, social distancing, contact tracing.”

During the briefing, Ballad Health reported 95% of the COVID-19 patients in the hospital are unvaccinated or only received one dose of a vaccine.

While “breakthrough cases” have occurred among vaccinated individuals, Swift said the majority of those cases are mild or even asymptomatic.

“People who are fully vaccinated are largely safe from serious illness, but the people in their lives who aren’t eligible for the shot, including our children, might be looking at a very dark and dangerous fall,” Swift said.

As of Wednesday, Ballad Health reported there were three children hospitalized with COVID-19 at Niswonger Children’s Hospital. Two of those children are on ventilators.

Last week, Ballad Health had reported four children were hospitalized with the virus, and one had been placed on a ventilator.

The average age of hospitalized COVID-19 patients is 64, as of Wednesday.

Deaton said that while Ballad has not yet mandated that its employees be vaccinated, leaders in the health system have been considering requiring it.

You can watch News Channel 11’s stream of Wednesday’s briefing below: