Ballad Health reports three new COVID-19 cases; warns of 'community spread'

David Floyd • Updated Mar 26, 2020 at 8:08 PM

Ballad Health reported three new cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in Tennessee and Virginia on Thursday, including the first in Unicoi County.

Two of those cases were identified in Tennessee, including an additional case in Sullivan County, and one in Washington County, Virginia. The cases were confirmed by Ballad Health on Thursday morning.

Of the 11 cases confirmed and diagnosed by Ballad Health, Jamie Swift, the system’s corporate director of infection prevention, said eight patients have been in the 21-40 age range.

“As we’re approaching this level of community spread, we’re really pleading with certainly that age group but all age groups to stay home, really practice this physical distancing,” she said.

Milligan College also reported Thursday a case of COVID-19 in an employee.

The employee, who the university did not identify, was last on campus on March 20, according to a statement from the college. It is the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on the college’s campus and the person is said to be self-isolating at home.

The campus remains closed to students, faculty, staff and the public. Classes were officially moved online for the rest of the semester on March 20.

Updated figures from the Tennessee Department of Health show 957 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the state, up from 784 on Wednesday.

There have also been 76 hospitalizations and three fatalities. Most of the identified cases in the state, 260, are in the 21-30 age range. In the Northeast Tennessee region, according to the department, Washington County has nine and Sullivan County has four. The state has reported no cases in Carter County.

The department’s numbers include the Tennessee cases discovered by Ballad Health on Thursday morning.

Dr. Cynthia Thomas with the Northeast Regional Health Office said evidence suggests community spread of the virus — meaning it has passed between individuals living in an area, including some who are unsure how or where they were infected — could be occurring in the region.

“Investigation of several confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the northeast region have identified no known exposure to another case and no history of travel to areas characterized by a high level of community transmission,” Thomas said. “This suggests the possibility of community spread as the source of exposure in these cases.”

Noting that he’s heard people compare the novel coronavirus to the flu, Dr. Clay Runnels, chief physician officer at Ballad, said COVID-19 is much more infectious and has a higher rate of serious infection.

“We are at the point where we’re at the base of our curve,” Runnels said. “We haven’t seen the rapid upswing with community spread at this point, which we’re expecting and obviously preparing for.”

Gov. Bill Lee told Tennessee media on Thursday that the National Guard has been shipping personal protective equipment to areas across the state. He said 81% of those shipments have gone to rural counties.

“We recognize that supplies are very limited in rural counties, so we need to get that equipment out there and we’ve done that,” he said.

Lee has also launched a campaign urging Tennesseans to adopt preventative health measures to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The “Do your part, stay apart” campaign, which encourages people to stay at home as much as possible and avoid large groups, features Lee, First Lady Maria Lee and celebrities like Brad Paisley, University of Memphis basketball coach Penny Hardaway and former NFL Titan Eddie George recording messages from their homes.

In the state budget approved last week, Lee said officials included $200 million in grants for counties and municipalities. He said every city and county in the state of Tennessee will receive grants proportionate to their population.

Lee also said the $2.2 trillion rescue package currently working its way through Congress includes funding for states to help with targeted relief for people impacted by COVID-19.

Asked if he’s ruled out a statewide two week stay-at-home order, Lee said he hasn’t taken anything off the table.

“We take these decisions one day at a time,” Lee said. “The data is changing constantly.”

During the system’s press conference earlier that day, Ballad CEO Alan Levine said that even if the governor introduces a stay-at-home order, the directive would exempt employees who serve in essential functions, like manufacturing, sanitary workers and health care employees.

“You’re still going to have thousands and thousands of people have to go to work,” he said. “There’s no real way to be completely locked down.”

Levine said the difference between the state’s status now and where the state would be if the governor issued that order is “incremental in nature.”

“Whether the governor orders it or not, if you don’t need to be out and in contact with people, don’t do it,” he said.

Press Staff Writer Jonathan Roberts contributed to this story.

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