“All plans are great until the first time you get punched in the nose,” Ballad CEO Alan Levine told local media during a news conference Wednesday. “The reality is we do have a good plan, but because this is novel, because it’s new, we don’t exactly know what all to expect, but we’re trying to prepare for every possible contingency.”
As of 6:40 p.m. Wednesday, an Associated Press tally indicated at least 14 states have reported cases of COVID-19, a new strain of coronavirus. That included North Carolina, Georgia, Illinois and Florida. So far, the CDC indicated Tennessee and Virginia have not seen reported cases of the virus.
Levine said the health system has been in communication with local school officials, city and county leaders, executives from Eastman Chemical Company and East Tennessee State University about the virus. On Wednesday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee announced he will assemble a 15-member coronavirus task force, which includes Dr. Jonathan Moorman, the infectious disease division chief at ETSU. Johnson City Schools recently posted a coronavirus response plan on the system’s website.
If Ballad officials encounter a patient who is high risk, presents symptoms of a respiratory illness and the system can’t identify a diagnosis from the series of tests it can perform, Levine said Ballad Health can ask the state departments of health in Virginia or Tennessee — each has the capability to test for COVID-19 — to conduct a test for the system. Levine said those tests would come back over a period of 24 to 48 hours.
That patient would be isolated until the results come back from the state, a precautionary step Levine said Ballad can perform at multiple facilities. If a test comes back positive, Levine said the system would tell the public it has confirmation of a case, consult with the state and provide guidance.
Levine did say Ballad has seen one case that has been sent to the state for testing. As of Wednesday afternoon, he said the system had not yet received the results of that test.
“There’s not been any cases in Tennessee up to this point,” Levine said. “It’s far more likely that it’s not the coronavirus.”
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If the system does experience a surge in cases beyond Ballad’s capacity to handle, Levine said it could dedicate a facility to treat patients infected with COVID-19. Levine said Wednesday he’s not ready to identify which Ballad facilities would fill that role.
As it prepares, Levine said the system is keeping its eye on three factors. One, Levine said the system is preparing for the illness as it grapples with a nursing shortage, an issue that Levine said Ballad has been dealing with for quite some time.
“Whenever you have an infectious disease event, there’s always the risk of an absenteeism issue as staff members want to take care of their families or they themselves are impacted by it,” he said.
Two, Ballad has also been working to ensure it’s well-stocked with supplies like gloves, gowns and masks. For COVID-19, Jamie Swift, Ballad Health’s corporate director of infection prevention, said the recommendations for health care workers at this time are gowns, gloves, an N95 respirator and a face shield.
“We have all of those on site at all of our facilities” Swift said, “and we’re prepared to keep our team members safe.”
Levine said the system has a surplus inventory of supplies, and he believes Ballad is currently in good shape. If officials experience an influx of cases and are concerned about the system running out of supplies, he said Ballad Health will seek assistance from the Tennessee Department of Health.
Three, Levine said the system is also thinking about how it would balance its resources for routine treatments in the event a surge occurs in coronavirus cases in Ballad’s service area.
“People still have needs for their emergency departments, they still have needs for their hospitals, they still have to have confidence that if they have a healthcare need, that those needs will be met by their health delivery system,” he said.
The system is also encouraging people to take preventative steps to avoid catching or spreading the illness. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that people avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth, stay home if they’re sick and wash their hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds — especially before eating or after blowing their noses, coughing or sneezing.
If they feel symptomatic, Levine said the best thing people can do is isolate themselves and call a physician, who will likely provide a mask and contact the health department.
Levine said Ballad Health is synchronizing the information posted on its website about COVID-19 with facts and guidance released by the CDC and the state departments of health.
“The most important thing is we want to give good information, and the worst thing that can happen is that people panic or that people follow misinformation,” Levine said.