Dr. Clay Runnels, Ballad’s chief physician executive, said the system is continuing to see people who need preventative or emergent care but are not seeking medical attention, leading to more serious and prolonged illnesses and possibly even death.
“This is not something we’re just seeing here regionally,” he said. “This is something people are concerned about nationally during the pandemic.”
Runnels said the system is conducting screenings and checking everyone who enters its facilities to ensure they’re not presenting COVID-19 symptoms. All patients, visitors, employees and physicians are required to wear face masks, and the system has redesigned many of its public and patient care areas to ensure there’s enough space to practice social distancing.
The system is also regularly disinfecting its facilities and has increased the availability of hand sanitizer. Telehealth options are also more readily accessible if patients are uncomfortable visiting a medical facility in person.
“The message today is twofold: One is don’t pass up routine care, which can lead to serious illness, and also very importantly, don’t put off emergent care because of serious symptoms you’re having,” Runnels said. “You are safe with us.”
With current data showing a decline in novel coronavirus cases in the region, Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton said the system has made the decision to partially ease visitation restrictions, which Ballad put in place on March 21 as a precaution against COVID-19.
“I was at one of the facilities earlier this week and saw a little bit more volume than I had seen before,” Deaton said when asked about the number of visitors the system was seeing. He noted that the relaxed visitation policy had only been in place for a few days. “So I think as the word gets out, people realize that they can have a visitor, that will start to pick up.”
The system first announced the visitation changes on Monday. They include allowing one designated visitor between 11 a.m. and 8 p.m. per inpatient who has not tested positive for COVID-19. One designated visitor will also be allowed per patient in the emergency department or pediatric emergency department, and two parents or guardians will be allowed in the neonatal intensive care unit or pediatric intensive care unit.
Visitors under the age of 18 will not be allowed at this time unless there are extenuating circumstances. Visitors will not be allowed for patients with COVID-19 or under investigation for the virus except in end-of-life situations.
The full revised policy is available on Ballad Health’s website.
Deaton said all visitors will be screened and must wear a cloth mask, which they will have to provide themselves.
“Our (personal protective equipment) is limited, so we cannot provide masks to everyone,” he said. “We need to maintain that supply for team members.”
He said these policies will remain in place until further notice and may be changed, loosened or enhanced depending on the number of cases in the region. Ballad is currently caring for three patients with COVID-19 at its facilities.
After starting a phased restart of elective surgeries on May 4, Deaton said those procedures are returning to normal levels, with all facilities running 80-100% of the system’s previous volume.
“We’re catching up (on) a lot of those cases that had been deferred before,” he said, adding that Ballad is still testing every patient before surgery. As a result of that process, the system has seen a few people test positive for COVID-19.
Additionally, the system is still evaluating when to reopen the six urgent care centers that it temporarily closed on April 13. Runnels said plans may be in place to reopen the Elizabethton urgent care center next week. The system is determining the best dates for the remaining facilities.