Ballad Health: Wastewater testing shows UK variant is driving ‘more than half’ of the region’s COVID-19 transmission

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL)- Ballad Health leaders hope a wastewater testing initiative will reveal how prevalent a more aggressive variant of COVID-19 is in the Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia region.

The healthcare system held another briefing on Wednesday as the number of COVID-19 hospitalizations continued to rise across its service area. Officials also provided more details on the wastewater testing project they first mentioned last week.

From their preliminary data, officials for the healthcare system say they know two things for sure.

“The wastewater supports spread in the region that is significant, and that the B.1.1.7 UK variant is present and likely driving that,” said Ballad Chief Physician Executive Dr. Clay Runnels.

Ballad has partnered with Biobot Analytics, a Cambridge-based company that conducts COVID-19 testing in sewage. Many other localities around the country have used wastewater surveillance to detect the virus among communities.

Ballad officials said they’ve taken wastewater samples from different cities and counties around the region to test for the viral genome.

“We expect that more than half of the transmission in the region is probably related to B.1.1.7 as a cause of the variant,” said Dr. David Reagan, who serves as a pandemic consultant for Ballad and serves as the project leader for the BioBot testing.

“The data that we’ve been presenting over this week and last week, really shows there’s been something different. Something is not the same in terms of the degree of transmission and also the severity of the illness, especially for younger folks,” said Reagan.

Officials said more specific data in the variant spread and results from the wastewater testing would be released next week.

Health leaders are concerned about the UK variant’s effect on younger age groups.

(IMAGE: Ballad Health)

Ballad reports their average in-patient death age was 74 during the pandemic’s January peak. This has now dropped to 66 years old. Officials believe the UK variant is in part responsible for younger people winding up in the hospital with severe COVID cases.

“The B.1.1.7 strain is more virulent. It spreads more easily,” said Runnels.

The system’s latest COVID-19 scorecard says 137 patients are currently hospitalized with the virus in its facilities, which is eight more patients than the last report released Monday. Currently, 29 patients are in intensive care and 20 are on ventilators.

Current data suggests the available COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the variant. But Ballad leaders are still seeing a dramatic decline in first-dose appointment demand.

“We have multiple appointments available for first dose, so we really need you to get your vaccine if you’ve not done that,” said Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift.

Across Ballad’s 21 county service area, less than 40 percent of the 16 and older population has received one vaccine dose. Less than 30 percent of that population is fully vaccinated.

(IMAGE: Ballad Health)

Ballad leaders called the next few weeks critical in slowing case spread permanently in the region. Swift announced that from now on, all of Ballad’s COVID-19 PCR testing will have same-day results.

Until more people are vaccinated, officials said activities such as indoor dining and not wearing masks are still risky.

With larger community gatherings and festivals planned for later this year, the Runnels said the healthcare system still doesn’t want people gathering in large groups.

“We’re generally opposed to large gatherings at this point. We’re still not allowing large gatherings within our organization, that’s what I can tell you. Those decisions we do not think are something that is a good idea with the surge occurring right now,” said Runnels.

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