Hospital leaders: No reason to think region will ‘dodge a bullet,’ avoid COVID delta variant surge

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – While Northeast Tennessee’s COVID-19 case rates are lower than Tennessee’s as a whole, Ballad Health’s CEO said he sees no reason to expect the region not to bear a similar brunt of the delta variant.

And the hospital system’s chief infection prevention officer said she believes the region — despite case rates more than tripling over the past three weeks — is probably still in the early stages of the variant’s impact.

Asked if the region might dodge a bullet and avoid the kind of community spread other areas have seen CEO Alan Levine was frank during a Wednesday interview with News Channel 11.

“We have no expectation we’re going to dodge it,” Levine said. “We think it’s coming. It’s here. It’s just, it’s – when you look at the patterns in Missouri, you look at the patterns in Florida, we’re following the exact same pattern.”

Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift is a softball fan. Asked what “inning” the region is in, she wasn’t encouraging.

“For delta, I would say first or second,” Swift said.

“In my opinion we’ve got a long way to go. We know delta’s here. We’re starting to see that in symptom presentation, we’re starting to see that in the age of patients that are being affected, but I do not think we are anywhere near the peak of what delta could do to this region.”

Shortly after the interview, the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) reported that Northeast Tennessee had a total of 40 new cases Tuesday, bringing the one-week total to 254.

A day later, the region recorded 100 cases. It was the first time it had hit that mark since early May and brought the seven-day total to 331 — nearly double the seven-day total from a week earlier.

Ballad Health leaders said Wednesday they believe Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia haven’t seen close to the worst effects of COVID-19’s delta variant yet.

Levine said there’s an additional infection disease concern. Last year’s masking and social distancing essentially meant no flu season.

“That’s good news,” Levine said. “The bad news is when you have a flu season cycle every year you continue to build immunity. Well we’ve had a year without the flu. We’re now seeing flu in the summer.”

Throw the time of year on top of those factors and Ballad could face a potent cocktail of challenging staffing and treatment scenarios, Levine said.

“School starts in a few weeks,” he said. “The timing of this is you’ve got the delta variant bearing down on us and we’re heading into a season when the flu is going to start to spread.”

Levine said that’s one reason the system’s delaying any decision on mandating employee COVID vaccinations despite the fact that more than a third of Ballad employees aren’t vaccinated.

“We’re seeing all this, we have to look five to six months out, look at our staffing,” Levine said. “This is why I don’t want to do anything that’s gonna disrupt our staffing right now.”

But if the delta variant case increase persists much longer, unvaccinated employees could be affected — another worry for Levine.

“If this delta variant shows up amongst our staff and we lose staff because they’re sick or in the hospital with COVID or they have to go home and quarantine that’s also going to affect our ability to staff,” Levine said.

“So I think the outlook for the next 90 to 120 days is concerning on that front.”

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