‘We must do our part to protect each other’: Local leaders issue joint statement urging Tri-Cities to follow COVID-19 guidelines

Local Coronavirus Coverage

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Regional business, faith and education leaders from across the Tri-Cities have announced their support of local healthcare workers and desire for members of the community to follow COVID-19 guidelines.

According to a release issued by ETSU on behalf of regional leaders, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant negative impact on the Tri-Cities.

“We are concerned that the surge of cases of COVID-19 cases in our region is resulting in increased hospitalizations, death and continued economic disruption. These issues are real, and they are happening all around us. Each of us has experienced team members, friends, family members or neighbors who have been directly or indirectly affected,” the release says. “Despite varying outlooks and perspectives about this virus, as a community, we must do our part to protect each other.”

The joint statement expresses gratitude for the continued response of healthcare workers during the pandemic.

“For almost nine months, they have been on the front lines, working each day to protect our loved ones and serving those who are afflicted with the virus and need care,” the statement reads. “We could not ask for more from them.”

The statement addresses the recent uptick in COVID-19 infections over the last few weeks.

In an effort to keep the local healthcare workforce from being overrun with cases, local business, education and pastoral leaders are asking the community to take the necessary steps to limit the spread of the virus.

The statement asks Tri-Cities residents to “take personal responsibility and wear a mask if you’re able to do so safely.” Residents are also asked by leaders to socially distance, find virtual alternatives to events, get a flu shot and frequently wash hands.

“If you balk at wearing a mask around others, please consider the fact that nurses and allied health professionals work 12-hour shifts and wear a mask the entire time, even as they must change their PPE each time they enter a patient room,” the statement says.

Pheben Kassahun spoke with some of them on why they felt the need for this urgent call to action.

Nearly two dozen leaders in the Tri-Cities region are wanting to remind everyone that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and to act accordingly to keep the community safe.

“It’s really beginning to cause a lot of stress on our health system, and in particular, Ballad,” Milligan University president, Dr. Bill Greer said.

Ballad Health chief nursing officer Lisa Smithgall speaking at Wednesday’s Ballad Health weekly news conference.

Just one day after top health officials in the Tri-Cities made pleas for community members to follow Centers for Disease Control guidelines, business, religious and education leaders are expressing their own concerns about the surge of COVID-19 cases locally.

In a Ballad Health press conference on Wednesday, Ballad Health chief nursing officer Lisa Smithgall said,”Nurses who have already been pushed are now being asked to work in increasingly challenging situations. In addition, we have more patients and less nurses.”

“This is something we can do to get it under control. There are choices we make everyday, wearing a mask, social distancing, proper hygiene work. It’s proven,” Eastman Chemical Company chairman and CEO, Mark Costa told Pheben Kassahun.

Costa knows just how deadly coronavirus can be.

“We had two losses of life here, actually. One here in our community as well as one down in our operating facility down in Sauget [Illinois],” Costa said.

Milligan University, located in Elizabethton, Tenn.

Milligan University president, Dr. Bill Greer, said now is a critical time to bring the numbers down.

“Right now, we have 15 or so cases within the Milligan community,” Dr. Greer said. “I want to be able to complete this semester safely and get our kids home for things like Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’re just a couple of weeks away from ending the face-to-face portion of this semester.”

Milligan University’s COVID-19 cases dashboard can be found here.

This is drone footage of Eastman Chemical Company, located in Kingsport, Tenn.

Leaders said everyone needs to make sure to wear a mask.

“In the early days where we had COVID spreading, in cases where someone might have caught it in the community and gone into the plant area, they might have interacted with 25 people but not a single person got it because they were wearing a mask, and doing social spacing and proper hygiene,” Costa said.

Leaders said to speak up when doing community activities and you notice someone not following guidelines.

“Speak up. If you see someone not wearing a mask in a closed area, ask them to put it on. If they’re wearing a mask under their nose ask them to lift it up. It’s uncomfortable for people to do that, I get it, but if we don’t all come together to keep people safe, it’s not going to work,” Costa added.

The joint statement was released on behalf of the following regional leaders:

Allen Jessee

Lead Pastor, Highlands Fellowship Church

Dr. Bill Greer

President, Milligan University

Dale Fair

Chief Executive Officer, Bank of Tennessee and Carter County Bank

Dr. Donna P. Henry

Chancellor, University of Virginia College at Wise

Dr. Brian Noland

President, East Tennessee State University

Grant Summers

President, Summers-Taylor, Inc.

Jeff Bedard

President/ Chief Executive Officer, Crown Laboratories

Jerry Caldwell

Executive Vice President/General Manager, Bristol Motor Speedway 

Joe LaPorte III

Chairman/Chief Executive Officer, Citizens Bank

John Stewart

President, Nuclear Fuel Services, Inc.

John Tweed

President/Chief Executive Officer, Landair

Dr. John W. Wells

President, Emory & Henry College

Kelly Price

President/Chief Executive Officer, Eastman Credit Union

Mark Costa

Chairman/Chief Executive Officer, Eastman Chemical Company

Martin Kent

President/Chief Operating Officer, The United Company 

Matt Murphy

Lead Pastor, Grace Fellowship Church

Neil Poland

President, Mullican Flooring

Rick Thomason

President, Six Rivers Media, LLC

Publisher, Kingsport Times News and Johnson City Press

Steven C. Smith

President/Chief Executive Officer, KVAT Food City

Tom Wennogle

President, ARTAZN, LLC

You can read the full letter below.

Help Us Support Our Healthcare Workforce as They Support our Region

As leaders of organizations touching every part of the Appalachian Highlands, we believe it is important to speak out about issues that affect our team members, their families and our extended communities.

Right now, there is no issue more concerning to us than the growing threat of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic.

We are concerned that the surge of cases of COVID-19 cases in our region is resulting in increased hospitalizations, death and continued economic disruption. These issues are real, and they are happening all around us. Each of us has experienced team members, friends, family members or neighbors who have been directly or indirectly affected.

Despite varying outlooks and perspectives about this virus, as a community, we must do our part to protect each other.

We are grateful for the focus and response we have seen from Ballad Health and our health departments from their respective team members and community partners. For almost nine months, they have been on the front lines, working each day to protect our loved ones and serving those who are afflicted with the virus and need care.

We could not ask for more from them.

But they cannot handle this alone. It is too much to ask of our nurses, doctors and allied health professionals to be there for us, without us also doing our part to help them.

For almost nine months, the public has been told in a transparent way what would happen if this virus spread, and for a long time, our region did a good job containing it. However, in the last few weeks, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in community spread. In addition to increased human suffering, the rapid spread of this virus threatens to overwhelm our healthcare delivery system – in fact, the signs are there that this is already happening.

Why is this important to us? Due to the spread of this virus nationally, and due to the significant increase in demand for what was already a shortage of nurses nationally and worldwide, staffing resources are not abundant; to wit, they’re more limited than usual. These limitations mean that, as COVID-19 cases increase and we confront the flu season, our nurses, doctors and allied health professionals could become overwhelmed and struggle to serve even the basic needs of our communities.


This does not have to happen. We can help reduce this risk by taking steps to protect ourselves, our families and the people we care for. We can take steps to reduce the spread of the virus, and we can take steps to reduce the risk of the flu.

Is this a guarantee that we won’t see the consequences of the spread? No. But if we do nothing, we can practically guarantee the worst case is likely to happen.


If you are out in public, we strongly encourage you to take personal responsibility and wear a mask if you’re able to do so safely. Socially distance and keep interactions to small groups. If you’re planning to host a large event, find a virtual solution or postpone it until it’s safe to do so. If that is not possible, take all appropriate steps to ensure physical distancing. Please get a flu shot now, in order to help mitigate the severity of the upcoming flu season. And keep up with the simple things like frequently washing your hands and covering coughs and sneezes. If you are experiencing symptoms, get tested. If you’re asked to quarantine, do so for the entire 14-day period to keep from spreading the virus to others.

If you balk at wearing a mask around others, please consider the fact that nurses and allied health professionals work 12-hour shifts and wear a mask the entire time, even as they must change their PPE each time they enter a patient room.

They must also act as family members, comforting very sick patients – even if they know the patient might not survive or will continue to suffer. They are the ones who have to call the family to tell them a patient has not survived. They carry the emotional burden of constantly dealing with a disease no one has experience with. They go home after their shift and carry the fear they might have been exposed and could be impacting their own families.

We all carry on our own responsibilities each day, and sometimes, we do not understand the lengths to which others go to serve our needs. In this case, our healthcare resources have done, and are doing, all we can ask of them. So, in turn, we ask everyone in our region to support them.

When it is one of our team members, or their families, or even our own who need the caring and expertise of these healthcare providers, we want those resources to be available.

Please pay attention. Please heed the guidance of Ballad Health experts and our regional healthcare leaders.


People of all ages have fallen ill from this virus, and some have lost their lives. Our thoughts are with their families during these extremely difficult times. We all know someone who is at risk or who needs our support.

Please join us in slowing the spread of this virus. We will get through this, but it will take all of us working together.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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