Health officials: Tri-Cities at the ‘tipping point’ of community spread

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BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — Mayors and health leaders from across the Tri-Cities held an unprecedented joint conference on Wednesday at the Sullivan County Health Department.

Leaders said the region is at a critical point regarding community spread of the virus. At Wednesday’s conference, mayors from Washington and Sullivan County asked everyone to take the virus seriously.

Ballad Health CEO & President Alan Levine said the region is now at high risk of community spread.

“We are at a tipping point, where we’re getting to see, now that folks have come back from spring break, and people have traveled and come back,” said Levine.

Wednesday evening, Dr. David Kirschke with the Northeast Regional Health Office told News Channel 11 that for the first time, some COVID-19 coronavirus cases in Northeast Tennessee cannot be traced directly to travel outside of the area. This suggests there may be community spread of the virus.

READ MORE: Health official: Some local coronavirus cases may be from community spread, not travel

Mayes said anyone who traveled to a high-risk area for coronavirus should be isolating themselves for 14 days. The hope is to prevent Northeast Tennessee from resembling the more highly infected parts of of the state, like Nashville.

“And they started out pretty much the way we look today in the Tri-Cities,” he said.

Washington County Health Department Director Christen Minnick said social distancing needs to be taken seriously.

“We are still continuing to hear reports of people who maybe are not following those social distancing recommendations. For those groups of people, that’s our ask, is to think a little bit differently,” Minnick said.

Levine said Ballad’s hotline has received more than 9,000 calls. They’ve issued nearly 200 coronavirus tests so far. At this point, they’ve only seen a handful of positives.

“This is the point where, either we’re going to be successful and contain it, or we’re going to watch it accelerate,” Levine said.

Dr. Stephen May with the Sullivan County Health Department said a “safer-at-home” order could be necessary if there is evidence of community-wide transmission.

“At that point, you may see an order for safer-at-home, that has been issued in the highly transmissible counties, both in Knox County, and in Nashville-Davidson,” May said.

Those orders limit all nonessential travel and errands outside the home for residents. But on Wednesday, May said if people in the Tri-Cities comply with the health and safety guidelines they’re being asked to take, a formal order may not be needed.

“But if we see non-compliance, then that may have to become an official order,” he said.

Sullivan County Health Department Director Gary Mayes said a stay at home order is a possibility, but it likely would not come from a local level.

“If the Governor decides to ratchet up the closures, we of course would support that. But to do it unilaterally, in a county or a city, would not have the impact as much as it would from a state-wide approach I believe,” Mayes said.

Levine said it’s important to acknowledge those unemployed due to the health crisis and scared for their finances and health.

“When does this end? That is a very real and legitimate question,” Levine said. “The fastest way for it to end is if we stop the spread of this thing.”

Last week Ballad Health announced the suspension of elective surgeries amid the coronavirus crisis. Levine said the healthcare system is now seeing significant financial loss.

“Ballad Health alone has seen $200 million evaporate, of our cash, because of what’s happened out in the market. We’re facing right now, up to $50 million a month of negative cash, because of 40% of our elective business that’s gone.”

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