JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) — COVID-19 hospitalizations have risen fast in the past two weeks after a long, steady increase and the number of critically ill COVID patients has spiked even more dramatically.

Ballad Health Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said the BA5 variant of the virus is now the dominant strain and is extremely contagious. While many cases are mild or even asymptomatic, the sheer number has pushed hospitalization and ICU totals to their highest levels since mid-March, when the Omicron surge was nearing its end.

“I would certainly say we are in a surge,” Swift said. While Ballad testing centers are seeing 200-300 people a day compared to 20-30 a few months ago, many people are simply testing at home.

“We know the actual number of tests that are positive are well beyond what’s being reported,” Swift said.

At the illness level, that’s translated over just the past 12 days into a 44% increase in the COVID inpatient census across all Ballad hospitals. A total of 124 people with COVID were hospitalized Wednesday, up from 86 on July 15.

“Over the past couple of weeks is when we really started to see that increase up to 100 and I think yesterday we had 132 patients,” Swift said.

As of Wednesday about a fifth of those patients were in intensive care units (ICU). Swift said all of those 25 COVID ICU patients were getting that level of treatment due to their COVID symptoms and not to some other illness or ailment with COVID as more of a side note.

“Those patients that are ending up on the ventilator and the intensive care really seem to be driven by COVID at this point in time,” she said.

Ballad Health has seen a sharp increase in the number of COVID patients needing ventilators in the past couple weeks. (WJHL photo)

The 25 ICU patients Wednesday, along with 26 reported Tuesday, are the two highest totals of the month. Ballad hospitals averaged about 11.5 ICU patients daily on the first of July, but that has jumped to an average of 17.2 since July 14.

The number of patients on ventilators has risen even more sharply, nearly tripling from 2.2 in the first half of the month to 6.2 since July 14. For the past two days, there have been 10 COVID patients on ventilators.

“We’re seeing a lot of cases that are mild cases, but we continue to have severe illness and death,” Swift said.

Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) COVID data show that from the beginning of July through July 23, the seven-county Northeast Tennessee region recorded 20 new COVID deaths. That includes eight in Sullivan County and three each in Greene, Johnson and Washington counties.

BA5 is the most contagious strain yet, with case clusters often resulting in four or five new cases as opposed to sometimes just one in the past. Symptoms are similar to previous variants, with cough, fever, fatigue, muscle aches and sore throat common.

The virus’s heightened spread is also impacting staffing at Ballad. The system has gone back to “contingency staffing,” which allows people to return to work five days after testing positive if they are asymptomatic, wearing a mask and following other protocols.

Combined with ongoing staffing shortages and higher numbers of COVID patients being admitted — an average of about 20 a day the past week-plus — that creates “throughput” issues, Swift said.

“Wait times in the (emergency departments) right now are longer. We’re holding patients in the EDs longer.”

While people are probably tired of hearing it, Swift said the current level of spread makes masking in indoor settings “a discussion to have,” especially with schools about to go back in session. She said most area counties are in the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) moderate or high community spread zones, which recommend masks indoors.

“It’s certainly that discussion to have either as a school system but maybe also as parents and children,” Swift said. “Really think about risk and what risks are there for your family and consider those masks again.”

Swift also noted that all school-aged children are eligible for vaccines now and suggested that was a good way to protect them.