SULLIVAN COUNTY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As the number of positive COVID-19 cases continues to rise across the nation and state, mayors from across the northeast Tennessee region implored residents to stay home to prevent further spread of the virus in the region.
In a plea to the public on Wednesday, mayors from Bristol, Kingsport, Bluff City, Johnson City, Jonesborough, Sullivan and Washington counties met – some over video call – with local health department officials in an attempt to drive the point home to the public – social distancing is important now more than ever.
“We are at a tipping point,” said Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine. “We’ve now started to see cases emerge, and initially many of the cases, almost all of those cases, were from people who had traveled and come back. And now we are at high-risk of community-based spread.”
Health department leaders including Sullivan County Regional Health Department director Gary Mayes asserted that there is no evidence of community-based spread at this time, meaning that there haven’t been cases of the virus spreading without a link to travel outside the region.
That could change quickly if community members don’t adhere to social distancing practices, Levine and others warned.
“If we do end up with a spread and we do end up with capacity issues, things can get very difficult very fast,” Levine said.
Mayes said there are still holes in the data that the health department is collecting on the virus and its spread.
“There are many things that we don’t know, but the things that we don’t know is the scope of the disease because we still cannot adequately test the population,” Mayes said.
Dr. Stephen May, medical director for the Sullivan County Health Department, said the reporting process may cause disparities between numbers reported at the state level versus confirmed cases in individual communities.
The process to report a positive case to the state can take 24-48 hours, he said, creating a lag as data heads to the state health department.
Levine said lags in the testing process will be alleviated once Ballad is able to analyze tests in house. He estimated that Ballad will receive the necessary components for testing sometime this week.
Mayors also addressed the tightrope many leaders are walking by trying to balance public health and a stable economy ravaged by the pandemic.
Mayes said he believes that the public health response is “where it should be” when reporters asked whether a stay-at-home order is in the future for citizens.
Mayors across the region maintained that the area’s largest employers have been cooperative at implementing sanitation and social distancing strategies, though Johnson City mayor Jenny Brock called on some nonessential businesses to change their operating procedures to fit social distancing protocols.
“I challenge those businesses to be creative about how they get their products and services to customers in an effort to minimize public interaction,” she said without naming specific businesses. “I’m grateful to those businesses that have already done this.”
One mayor after the other repeated the same message to their citizens: Stay home when you can, don’t spread the virus.
Some leaders addressed economic concerns, but maintained that containing the spread of the virus is the primary focus.
Levine and Mayes said that the low population density of the region could help contain the spread.
But Levine said the age and health of the population could mean a more severe outbreak.
“You don’t want to look back and say, ‘Why didn’t we do what we should have done?’ You want to look back and say, ‘People think that we overreacted because fewer people died,'” he said.
You can watch the entire news conference on our WJHL Facebook page below.
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