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Flu season worsens, Ballad Health seeing 'epidemic levels' in Northeast Tennessee

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Jan 3, 2020 at 1:45 PM

Widespread in nearly every part of the continental United States, the flu season has reached “epidemic levels” in the Tri-Cities region, according to Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine.

“We’re in the middle of a very serious flu season,” with “epidemic levels of spread,” Levine said. “The very definition of epidemic is the rapid rise of transmissible disease in a two-week period; well, here we are.

“We want to make sure the public understands the severity of this.”

So far this season, more than 4.5 million people have gotten the flu, with more than two million going to a hospital for treatment. There have been 39,000 people hospitalized, with 2,200 recorded deaths. Levine said Ballad’s emergency rooms have seen about 1,450 cases of flu, with at least 1,000 of those occurring in the past three weeks.

Earlier this week, Ballad established a separate emergency room entrance and triage area at Niswonger Children’s Hospital, something Levine said “proved to be very helpful.” In a press release, Ballad also said that those seeking care may see elevated wait times as higher volumes of patients and caretakers are falling ill.

Flu cases put “strain” on Ballad hospital staffs

While all Ballad health employees are required to get a flu vaccine, that hasn’t stopped many from contracting the virus themselves.

“We went into this flu season already with a national nursing shortage — it’s well documented, we’ve obviously experienced the shortage ourselves — that’s not helpful when you go into flu season and you have team members that end up themselves getting sick.

“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 said. “We’re not necessarily immune to this, despite the fact that we all have the vaccine.”

Levine also said that, while all other urgent care facilities were open on Wednesday, Ballad’s Gray clinic was shut down because all of the staff had gotten the flu. The clinic re-opened on Thursday.

In addition, there are about 20 workers furloughed from Holston Valley Medical Center as Ballad awaits test results confirm their immunity to an illness they were exposed at the hospital. Until then, Levine said, they will remain on furlough, though test results were expected to come back Thursday night.

Levine said that workers placed on leave won’t be penalized for missing work due to illness, and that they’re giving workers sent home from Holston Valley access to medical leave time, rather than having them use personal time off.

“It has, obviously, put a large strain (on our staff) in terms of providing caregivers — not just physicians but our nursing staff as well — but what I’ve been positively enthused and encouraged by is how we have been able to spread our resources around and how caregivers have just bent themselves backwards to show up and help other sick caregivers, “ said Dr. Amit Vashist, senior vice president and chief clinical officer at Ballad Health.

Concern as schools return from winter break

As local schools return from winter break, Ballad officials are concerned it could cause another spike in flu-like illnesses — putting even more pressure on schools and healthcare facilities

“Children and elderly adults, particularly those that are immunocompromised are certainly at the greatest risk when they’re exposed to the flu,” Levine said. “We suspect that this spike we’ve seen is not the worst of it; we suspect that when children go back to school, we're going to see another spike, and it’s potentially going to be very serious.”

Jamie Swift, Ballad Health’s director of infection prevention, said that they’re currently working with officials from Washington County and Johnson City Schools to prevent another spike in flu illnesses, and will be speaking with other area school districts in the coming days.

“It’s really getting the public message out as much as we can,” Swift said of preventing the flu. “We’ll reach out to schools — churches are another great avenue where people can help us spread the message — it’s really just inundating the community with the message that flu is here, don’t panic, but this what we need you to help stop its spread.”

Levine said that Ballad has seen a 45% increase in the number of pediatric ER visits in September — 700 more than they saw in December 2018 — which includes all transmissible illnesses, not just flu.

Vaccines still best defense against flu

While it’s too early to tell if this year’s flu vaccine is effective against this year’s flu strains, it’s still the best way to protect yourself and avoid falling ill.

“We know the flu vaccine is not going to prevent every illness, but what we do know is if you get the flu vaccine and you still get the flu, you’re less likely to get hospitalized and less likely to die — so we know the flu vaccine is important, even in seasons where it’s not a great match,” Swift said.

Flu vaccines are being offered for free at the Tennessee Department of Health’s regional offices, though supplies are limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis.

“We would still recommend for anybody to get the flu vaccine,” said Leslie Jones, the communicable disease director for the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office. “That is one of the main ways to prevent the flu. It’s not too late.”

For those looking to get a flu vaccine, it’s recommended you call your local health office ahead of time to confirm they still have vaccines available. A directory of county health offices can be found at www.tn.gov/health/health-program-areas/oralhealth/clinics/northeast-region.html.

This article has been updated to correct Leslie Jones’ last name. A previous version of this story said her last name was “Dome”. 

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