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With a case in Sullivan County, local agencies brace for COVID-19

David Floyd • Mar 12, 2020 at 10:53 AM

As news breaks this week that a confirmed case of novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has been identified in Sullivan County, local agencies — including Ballad Health, East Tennessee State University and senior centers — are taking steps to ensure protocols are in place in the event the virus gains a footing in Washington County.

ETSU classes moving forward as scheduled

ETSU announced Wednesday that it is suspending all university-related domestic travel effective immediately.

The suspension will be in place through April 30. This follows the announcement on Monday that ETSU would suspend university-related international travel through June 15. At this time, the university is not restricting domestic travel associated with competitive athletic events, such as the NCAA Tournament.

“This suspension is applicable to university-related domestic and international travel and does not apply to personal travel plans,” ETSU president Brian Noland said in an email to students. “As we move closer to Spring Break, I encourage you to be prudent in following information being released from the CDC regarding travel alerts and any other information that is being provided from the health departments and other organizations that is applicable to where you plan to travel.”

As many universities and colleges in the U.S. decide to suspend in-person class meetings and move all instruction online, ETSU is planning at this time on moving forward with normal class schedules and academic operations.

“However, depending on how this outbreak progresses in our state and region, it is possible that a similar decision could be made for our campus in the near future,” Vice President for Student Life and Enrollment Joe Sherlin wrote in a Wednesday email to students. “In light of this, we encourage all students to be prepared for a change in operations.”

Before leaving campus next week for spring break, the university is encouraging students to take any books or learning materials with them in the event they need to complete course work in a remote location. The university is also suggesting  students take personal items with them that they would need if they’re away from campus for an extended period.

Dr. Sheri Holmes, the associate dean of clinical affairs, said ETSU’s clinical leadership held a meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss protocols at their facilities. She said leadership meets regularly to plan for patients and staff and to ensure that the protocols follow the “ever-evolving” guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

She said ETSU Health is closely monitoring COVID-19 and recommendations from the Tennessee Department of Health, Washington County Health Department, the World Health Organization and the CDC.

Ballad Health plans screenings at facilities

Ballad Health plans to reduce the number of available entrances to its facilities and conduct screenings for those who enter Ballad buildings.

“These measures are intended to ensure the protection and sustainability of the health care workforce,” the system said in a press release Wednesday.

This could include tighter screenings around long-term care facilities where the system cares for geriatric patients. The system plans to provide details by Thursday and currently has enhanced flu restrictions in place at Ballad facilities.

The system said it has also activated its “Corporate Emergency Operations Center,” a group composed of leaders overseeing “essential functions” of the system who will manage Ballad’s response to the illness. Ballad has also established a call center for individuals if they are experiencing mild symptoms and want to speak to a health care professional. People can call Ballad Health’s Nurse Connect at 1-833-822-5523. The phone line is active 24 hours a day and service is free.

Right now, testing is coordinated through state health departments across all 50 states. Jamie Swift, the director of infection prevention at Ballad Health, said hospitals don’t have that capability yet but anticipates the health system will soon have the option to send tests to either the state or private labs.

Ballad said in the press release that it is in the process of establishing “multiple access points for testing” if needed. The system said more details will be announced in the coming days.

Caring for vulnerable populations

Older adults and people with chronic medical conditions like diabetes, heart disease or lung disease are at higher risk of getting “very sick” from COVID-19, according to the CDC. Consequently, local senior living centers are implementing steps to ensure the populations they care for are safe.

A sign posted on the front of Agape Senior Living Center in Johnson City since Tuesday said the facility, which serves more than 500 people, is restricting all visitation except in critical circumstances. Those circumstances will need to be discussed and cleared with the facility administrator and the director of nursing.

“We strongly regret the anxiety this may cause a loved one and the residents,” the sign said. “However, for the residents’ safety, this facility is following recommendations to minimize the opportunity for infection to enter the facility.”

Brookdale Senior Living, another facility serving seniors in Johnson City, operates more than 700 locations in the U.S., including one at 2003 Waters Edge Drive, and said it’s taking precautionary measures and following guidance from the CDC, which has released guidelines for employers and businesses to contain the spread of the virus.

“Brookdale’s number one priority is the health and safety of our residents, patients and associates,” the company said in a statement.

The company said its main focus is prevention, and that it is reinforcing its policies and procedures for contagious illnesses like the flu with staff. Those include reminders about flu vaccines, washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, staying home when sick and taking flu antivirals as prescribed.

The company said it has a corporate emergency response team in place to provide support to local teams, especially if they encounter a confirmed case of COVID-19.

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