As testing ramps up, more COVID-19 cases diagnosed in Northeast Tennessee

Jonathan Roberts • Updated Mar 21, 2020 at 2:54 PM

Officials with Ballad Health and the Northeast Tennessee Regional Health Office have identified three new novel coronavirus cases in the region — including the first two in Washington County.

“The Northeast (Tennessee) Regional Health Office was notified late last night of three confirmed cases of coronavirus disease, COVID-19, by the state public health laboratory,” said Dr. David Kirschke, medical director of the regional health office. “Two of the cases are Washington County residents, and one was living in Greene County.”

Friday morning, Tusculum University in Greeneville announced one of its students had tested positive for COVID-19, and said it was in the process of notifying the health department of all campus members who have been in contact with that student.

The Regional Health Office said the student is self-quarantining.

“Tusculum University is committed to the well-being of all students, faculty and staff and will continue to be a resource for anyone who needs assistance,” the school said in a statement. “The university and classes will continue to function, and we will remain on track to finish the remainder of the spring semester.”

In a Friday email to members, Blackthorn Club in the Ridges’ executive chef James Allen identified himself as having tested positive for COVID-19, and that he is also self-quarantining. When asked if Allen was one of the two Washington County residents to test positive, neither Ballad Health nor Kirschke would confirm he was one of the two Washington County patients, citing HIPAA laws.

“For the last 10 years many of you have welcomed me into your homes and I can gratefully call many of you my friends,” Allen wrote in a message sent by the Blackthorn. “For those reasons, I am writing to let you know that I tested positive for the COVID-19 virus late last night. I self-quarantined last weekend before showing any symptoms, but out of abundance of caution we have decided to close the clubhouse and all food and beverage operations through Tuesday, March 31.”

Kirschke said all three had been tested in the last 48 to 72 hours and were in good spirits. None of the three are currently hospitalized, Kirschke said.

One case had previously been reported in Sullivan County, bringing the region’s total to four. All four people had previously traveled to other places, where it’s believed they contracted the disease.

“We do hope that this announcement will add increased urgency to the public to follow all the public health messages that we have been giving over the past several weeks — especially staying home if you’re sick,” Kirschke said.

The identification of three new cases comes as testing in the region has ramped up in recent days, with multiple testing sites at East Tennessee State University and Ballad Health facilities opening up in recent days. So far, at least 175 people have been tested at Ballad and ETSU sites — Kirschke could not say how many the Regional Health Office has tested.

“It’s very important that we’re all on the same page and know what’s going on at each of the different institutions,” said ETSU Infectious Disease Division Chief Dr. Jonathan Moorman, who is also working with Ballad and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee’s COVID-19 task force.

Ballad Health President and Chief Executive Officer Alan Levine said the wait time for results from private labs was several days, but that they hoped to have on-site testing available next week that would take the wait for results “from four-to-six days to a few hours.”

Kirschke said that, while testing “isn’t as available as we want it to be,” they’re trying to prioritize high-risk individuals who’ve traveled to places with “a lot of cases” and those who’ve had close contact with an infected person. He also noted that they’re also prioritizing health care workers and people who have a lot of contact with people.

“We don’t have capacity to test everyone in the health system who wants it, but we are working with partners like Ballad, we’re working with ETSU, to try and make sure anyone who has symptoms compatible with coronavirus disease can get tested if they want it,” Kirschke said.

Ballad hoping to keep infection rate low, Regional Health Office preparing for more cases

While the number of COVID-19 cases in the region is expected to rise, Levine said the key to enduring the pandemic is keeping the rate of infection low.

“If we’re down near 20% rate of infection, we think it’s extremely manageable,” Levine said, “we get up to 30-40-50% rate of infection, the limitations of the system will kick in and that will be a problem.

“If we can keep it to a 20% rate of infection, then I think we’re well-prepared for this,” he added.

Kirschke called the response to the virus “inspiring,” noting that “in our area, we were already doing (preventative) measures for a week or more before we even had our first case.

“Everybody has been really bending over backwards, especially to protect those most vulnerable — our elderly population, people with high-risk illnesses like diabetes, heart and lung disease — so yeah, I think it’s been really inspiring. The length we’ve gone is really unprecedented,” he said.

Anyone experiencing symptoms of respiratory illness can call the Regional Health Office’s information line at 423-979-4689, where individuals who “meet high-risk criteria” will be told how to get tested “on a case-by-case basis.” To get tested by Ballad or ETSU, individuals must call ahead to be pre-screened and registered at 833-822-5523 for Ballad or 423-433-6110 for ETSU.  

“We do expect to have more positive cases in the coming days, whether they’re imported cases like the ones we’re talking about that had exposure elsewhere, or if there starts to be community spread, but the public just needs to know that, if you haven’t been following the public health recommendations, definitely now is the time to really take that seriously,” he said.

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