JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – Ballad Health held its first COVID-19 briefing in two months on Wednesday following officials noticing dangerous trends as cases and hospitalizations increase.
In just over a month, new case rates have nearly doubled in Northeast Tennessee, from 14 percent on March 10 to 27 percent as of Monday. Meanwhile, the state rate of new COVID-19 cases has decreased.
“Simply put, we really cannot take another surge like we’ve seen in the past,” said Ballad Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton.
Ballad officials are worried as they’re once again seeing COVID-19 hospitalization rates rise, along with a younger average COVID patient age.
The healthcare system’s previous average in-patient age was around 70. That’s dropped to 58 in the last 6 weeks.
“We’re also starting to see people even at the age of 20 and 30 years of age being either admitted or even on ventilators,” said Deaton.
Ballad reports having 107 COVID-19 patients at its hospitals, with 27 of those patients being treated in Intensive Care Units, and 14 on ventilators.
Ballad leaders attribute the case rise to people returning from spring break travel, a decrease in mask-wearing, and the spread of more powerful COVID-19 variants throughout the region.
“That’s exactly what you see, where places that you know the U.K. strain is dominant, it’s younger, it’s more aggressive, and those younger patients are ending up very sick in the hospital,” said Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift.
A case of the U.K. variant has been detected in Northeast Tennessee in recent weeks. Health department officials said the slow confirmation turnaround from the CDC makes it difficult to determine how many more U.K. variant cases could be circulating in the area.
On Wednesday, Deaton mentioned a new Ballad initiative to measure for variants.
“We have entered into an agreement working with our local counties and cities. You can test wastewater treatment, or wastewater to determine if there are variants in that. And so we have entered into an agreement to do that testing,” he said.
News Channel 11 requested more information from Ballad on the wastewater testing, including which cities and counties are involved. A spokesperson said more information would be available next week.
Significantly fewer COVID deaths are happening in Ballad’s hospitals, but the average death age has dropped as well. In 2020, Ballad’s average in-house death age was about 75. This has now dropped to 69 years of age.
Despite the troubling case data, health officials see a way out.
“If we’re ever to return to what normal life may look like, we have got to get this vaccine in arms as quickly as possible,” said Swift.
On Tuesday, Swift told News Channel 11 around 50 percent of Ballad Health’s available appointments are being filled.
Across the 21-county Ballad service area in Tennessee and Virginia, 36 percent of the 16 and older population has received one dose.
“I think in order for us to reach herd immunity, we need to be around 70-80 percent that have either had COVID or have had a vaccine,” said Deaton.
Ballad announced Wednesday it will move its Elizabethton community vaccination center. Starting May 3, it will be located in the Mall at Johnson City in the former DSW store. Swift said the mall site should be more accessible, as it will take both appointments and walk-in patients.
You can watch the full Ballad briefing below.