Fighting skepticism of the pandemic’s severity, regional leaders put frontline workers in the spotlight


TRI-CITIES, Tenn./VA. (WJHL)- Local health officials have been issuing grim warnings for weeks now, saying the region is in a dangerous place when it comes to COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths.

But there’s been plenty of pushback on social media from others who are unconvinced of the pandemic’s severity. The latest effort from local leaders to combat COVID-19 skepticism in the region includes sharing testimony from frontline workers witnessing the effect COVID-19 community spread has on hospitals firsthand.

On Wednesday, Ballad Health officials spoke about a mobile morgue unit outside Johnson City Medical Center, placed outside the hospital in anticipation of further COVID-19 deaths. News stories concerning the morgue truck went viral – with some on social media commenting in dismay – and others with indifference – suggesting the morgue was to spread fear, or that the photos were fake.

Comments from Facebook users below a WJHL article on the mobile morgue

Another commenter expressed doubt, saying they didn’t know anyone who has passed away from COVID-19.

Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine addressed the skepticism on Twitter Friday morning, saying:

Believe it or not, people have actually expressed doubt that the refrigerator morgue outside JCMC is real. It is, folks. Our future for the next month is written. It’s likely to be very difficult. Pray for our front line caregivers. Pray they keep at it.

Frontline workers are the focus of a new social media campaign from Region AHEAD (Appalachian Highlands Economic Aid Directory). The first video came from a CNA at JCMC.

“It’s so serious and people don’t see it that way. And it comes, when it does, it’s quick. It happens fast, you know. These patients will be fine and three days later they’re dead,” the CNA says in the video.

Jamie, a CNA, speaks on her experience as a frontline worker

Another video released by Region AHEAD features an RN at JCMC.

“I’m just trying to keep people alive. So that they can hopefully eventually go home. I just want everybody to take it seriously. It’s kind of shocking that that’s still an issue,” the RN says in the self-recorded video.

Andy Dietrich of Region AHEAD says it’s time for the stories of these frontline workers to be heard, even as others grow wary of pandemic precautions.

“I think a lot of us are numb,” said Dietrich. “Since February-March, we’ve been hearing ‘mask up, mask up, social distance.’ You know I read a lot of things where people say, ‘Hey, this isn’t real.’ Yes, it’s real.”

Ballad Health Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton said the COVID-19 surge is ‘overwhelming’ at times for their frontline workers.

“We’re seeing that anywhere from 15-17% of the people who are hospitalized with it are dying from it. We’ve seen almost 800 deaths across this region already because of it. These are not things that we’re making up. These are real,” said Deaton.

Data tracked by the New York Times on Dec. 4th showed Johnson City ranked on a list of metro areas across the county where new cases are rising the fastest, on a population-adjusted basis

Dietrich is concerned the region is gaining national notoriety due to its rapid case rise.

“Deaths and number of cases that are springing up are all on national scorecards now,” he said. “Our little region here is gaining national attention. That’s not good. That’s not what we need, that’s not what we want.”

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