‘It’s still an emergency for us’: Ballad leaders urge vaccination as UK, Brazilian, and South African variants are detected in the region

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Ballad Health officials expressed concern over COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the region a day after Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee declared that COVID-19 is no longer a statewide public health emergency.

On Tuesday, the governor said the virus was a managed public health issue in the state. At the same time, Ballad leaders are tracking variant spread in the area and observing younger patients being hospitalized with COVID-19.

“It is still a very important issue. And it’s still an emergency for us,” said Ballad Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton.

Deaton asked community members to still wear masks in public on Wednesday. An executive order signed by Lee will in part remove local leaders’ ability to issue mask mandates.

“I still believe that the intent is for the ability for our economy to get back to normal as much as possible while we’re still managing the COVID-19,” Deaton said. “I really believe, and I think we believe as an organization that you have to take personal responsibility for that.”

As of Wednesday, Ballad reports 122 patients with COVID-19 are being treated at their facilities. Thirty of those patients are being treated in Intensive Care Units and 22 are on ventilators.

Ballad’s average COVID in-patient age is now 59.6 years old, with 62 percent of patients between 40 and 69.

“That’s concerning, that this is just not people who were elderly or older being hospitalized. We’re seeing younger and younger people,” said Deaton.

In-house COVID-19 patient totals (Ballad Health)

Health leaders believe the sicker patients are a result of variant spread. South African and Brazilian variant cases have now been confirmed to Ballad Health after being detected by surveillance from the Northeast Regional Health Office, Deaton said.

Ballad officials said the UK variant is now dominant in the region, overtaking the original strain. The healthcare system is working with Massachusetts-based company Biobot Analytics, which conducts COVID-19 testing in sewage.

Chief Physician Executive Dr. Clay Runnels said wastewater samples were pulled from Johnson City, Kingsport, and Bristol treatment centers.

The test results showed significant COVID-19 spread. Runnels said the Biobot database includes over 400 clients in 43 states. He compared the region’s COVID-19 spread to other test sites in the U.S.

“So all the samples that [Biobot] had tested over the last six weeks, we were well above the average for those… not higher than everyone else, but above the average for all those sites tested,” he said.

Signs of hope in the healthcare system’s data include the region’s case growth declining for the first time in six weeks, down from last week by around 17 percent.

COVID case growth across Ballad’s 21-county service area (Ballad Health)

Over 30 percent of the 16 and older population is now vaccinated in Ballad’s 21-county Tennessee and Virginia service area.

More than 40 percent of the 16 and older population has received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

“Combine that with people who have actually had COVID-19, it helps us get closer and closer to the herd immunity,” Deaton said.

Vaccination is the best line of defense against variants, officials said. In an effort to make vaccination easier, Ballad officials reminded the public their Elizabethton vaccination site is moving to the Mall at Johnson City starting May 3rd.

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