Ballad Health CEO says flu reaches “epidemic” levels, expects cases to keep climbing

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Multiple factors cause extended emergency room wait times

TRI-CITIES, Tenn. (WJHL) – A spike in flu cases has caused a rise to ‘epidemic’ levels, and experts say they expect flu season to continue its surge.

Ballad Health Chief Executive Officer Alan Levine said flu cases from the system’s emergency rooms doubled in a week – the week before Christmas, hospitals reported 279 cases, and the week of Christmas, they reported 539.

Read more: CDC: Flu deaths on the rise with 2,100 fatalities reported in 2019-2020 season

Regional numbers mirror a nationwide trend – the Centers for Disease Control estimates between 4.6 million and 6.6 million flu cases so far this year, between 2.2 million and 3.2 million medical visits for flu, between 39,000 and 68,000 hospitalizations and at least 2,100 deaths.

And Levine said he only expects it to get worse as students head back to school next week.

“We expect this spike that we’ve seen is not the worst of it,” he said, adding, “I think, potentially, it’s going to be very serious.

“We’re already, as we shared, we’re a little bit fatigued as a system,” Levine said. “Not just Ballad, throughout the country, hospitals are struggling with this already and we’re still four or five months from the end of the flu season.”

Previous story: Ballad Health starting restrictions to hospital visits due to spread of flu

Jamie Swift, Ballad’s director for infection prevention, said a rise in ‘Influenza B’ raised some red flags earlier in the season.

‘Influenza B,’ she said, is more common in children, and she said its rise early in the season is “really rare,” and the strains of influenza aren’t the only illnesses circulating the region.

“We’ve seen the stomach virus, various things, usually norovirus, that’s also extremely contagious, another disease that you really need to stay at home if you’re sick,” she said.

Reported previously: US flu season arrives early, driven by an unexpected virus

Levine said the spread of illness could affect emergency room waiting times. In addition to causing more admissions, the virus is making its rounds to nursing teams and caregivers within the system.

Yesterday, Ballad’s Urgent Care center in Gray closed due to staffing shortages. Twenty caregivers from Holston Valley are currently ‘furloughed’ from coming into work due to recent exposure.

“The compounding effect of this is we have higher volumes in the emergency departments, and we have fewer numbers of team members that are available because of call-ins,” Levine explained.

Previous story: Niswonger establishes separate ER entrance, triage area for children with flu symptoms

Ballad requires all employees to receive an annual flu vaccination. Levine said the health system takes precaution a step further by requiring employees to validate immunity.

“If they’re exposed to it, we don’t want them to become carriers and expose other team members and patients,” he said.

He said furloughed employees are given access to medical leave while they aren’t working, and he said hopes are high for test results to be in tonight for the furloughed Holston Valley caregivers.

Even with all the precautions, it’s not always possible to stop the spread of illness.

“Despite the fact that we all have the vaccine, we’re not immune to it, you can still get it,” he said. “The flu may not be as severe, but you can still get it depending on the type of strain or the type of flu.”

Swift said it’s too early to tell if this year’s flu vaccine was a “good match, ” and that the Centers for Disease Control will have those findings later in the year.

She added that getting a flu vaccine is still important to reduce the severity of an illness.

“If you get flu vaccine and you still get flu, you’re less likely to be hospitalized, less likely to die, so we know the flu vaccine is important,” she said.

Visitation restrictions are still in place, Levine said. As a public health concern, he said it’s important for members of the community to do what they can to minimize the spread of illness:

  • Frequent hand-washing with warm water and soap
  • Avoid ‘unnecessary’ contact to limit exposure
  • Cover your mouth when you sneeze or cough
  • Do not go to work if you are experiencing symptoms
  • Do not send children to school who are showing symptoms

“People are dying and can die from this, it’s a horribly uncomfortable illness to have,” Levins said. “It’s incredibly disruptive to workplaces to schools to your life, so take it very seriously. We certainly are.”

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