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As numbers rise, Ballad Health warns it can't take another COVID surge

With hospitalizations and cases increasing as vaccine demand slows, Ballad Health leaders say they are again seeing disturbing trends in regional COVID-19 data.

For the first time in two months, officials with the health system met with local media to deliver an update and to urge residents to follow precautions and seek out one of the approved vaccines.

“Simply put, we really cannot take another surge like we’ve seen in the past,” said Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton. “Our health system was really strained before, and we’re very concerned that we cannot sustain another strain.”

Deaton said employees are starting to recover from the burnout they experienced when COVID-19 hospitalizations spiked to their highest point — more than 350 patients — during the winter. But as numbers rise now, Ballad Health is concerned about continued stress on the health system and particularly on employees.

Lisa Smithgall, the system’s chief nursing executive, said Ballad Health has been working to provide mental health resources to nurses, some of whom had to deal with two or three patient deaths a day.

“What we heard when our numbers started to rise last week is that some of our teams were in tears because they just couldn’t believe the community wasn’t supporting them,” Smithgall said. “I really am making a personal plea. ... I wish COVID were over as well. It’s not. I really need people to do what they need to do to help support our teams.”

What do the numbers say?

Last week, the number of hospitalizations at Ballad facilities rose above 100 inpatients for the first time since February. Deaton said modeling shows the system could in a worst-case scenario eventually see 150 COVID-19 inpatients.

Since early March, the system has seen the number of COVID-19 cases in its 21-county service increase by 60%, jumping from 897 the week ending March 6 to 1,443 last week.

The region’s positivity rate, which measures the percentage of positive test results, was at 13.9% on Wednesday. Jamie Swift, the system’s chief infection prevention officer, noted that a positivity rate of less than 5% is the goal.

“We certainly need to continue to monitor that and drive that down,” she said. “It’s not as high as it was in January obviously, but we still have a long way to go.”

The average age of coronavirus inpatients has also decreased from 70 to 58, and the percentage of COVID-19 patients on ventilators has increased. Swift said those data points seem to indicate that there are variant strains of the virus spreading in the region.

Deaton said hospital officials are also concerned that they will have to again pause elective procedures if hospitalizations and cases continue to increase.

“We’re just now really getting caught up with the number of backlog surgeries and procedures,” he said.

More people need vaccines

Through Tuesday, the system has administered 41,178 first vaccine doses and 34,693 second vaccine doses. Swift said more than 195,000 people in the region are fully vaccinated.

“We’re pleased with the progress, but we are far from over,” Swift said. “We have a long road ahead of us to continue this vaccination effort.”

Deaton said the system is starting to see fewer and fewer people taking vaccines. About 30% of people across the Ballad Health service area have received at least one dose of a vaccine. To reach herd immunity, Deaton said, 70 to 80% of people in the region must have either recovered from COVID or received a vaccine.

“We still have quite a ways to go,” he said.

The system has four community vaccination sites set up across the region. Swift said Ballad Health will transition its site in Elizabethton to the former Designer Shoe Warehouse storefront at The Mall at Johnson City, which will open on May 3. There, the system will be able to accommodate both appointments and walk-ins.

Swift said a large number of vaccination appointments are available. She estimated that the system could be administering double the doses it’s currently giving at its vaccination sites.

At this stage, Swift said, health leaders need to convince people in the community who either have concerns about the vaccines or don’t feel an urgent need to get vaccinated.

“I really want to put that urgency back in this situation,” she said.

Johnson City Library opening its doors to the public

Beginning Monday, members of the public will be allowed inside the Johnson City Public Library for the first time in more than a year.

The library will begin a phased reopening of its building at 100 W. Millard St. with limited hours and services.

Starting A New Schedule

Library hours will be 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Curbside pickup will continue during those same hours.

Officials say the library will be open to as many as 50 people at a time to browse the shelves and check out materials. Computers will also be available for 20-minute sessions.

In keeping with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, masks will be required of everyone while in the building.

Toys, games and seating areas will not be available until further notice, and all events will continue to be online.

The Friends of the Library is also hosting an expanded and ongoing book sale in the library’s Polly Peterson Room.

People Returning To The Library

The library held a soft opening with friends and family members on Wednesday, which Library Director Julia C. Turpin said will help her staff “work out the kinks” before Monday’s official grand reopening.

“People have been excited and overjoyed to be back in the building,” Turpin said, noting that as many as 50 people had visited the library by 2 p.m.

Cathy Griffith, the library’s assistant director, said Wednesday’s event reached a level of enthusiasm that she has not seen since the facility first opened its doors on Millard Street in 1999.

“They are grateful to be here,” she said.

Closed For The Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the Johnson City Public Library to close its doors to customers on March 18, 2020.

The staff has been working under CDC restrictions inside the building since May, and the library launched its curbside service in June.

Since that time, Turpin said more than 90,000 books and movies have been checked out with the curbside service.

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Johnson City seeking applicants for volunteer boards, committees

Johnson City is looking for people willing to help serve their community.

The City Commission is accepting applications for appointments to a series of volunteer boards and committees. The appointments are scheduled to be made in July.

Any citizen interested in serving can submit an application online at www.johnsoncitytn.org/boards. The deadline for applications is Friday, May 28, and applications are kept on file for one year. Descriptions of each board and committee can be found online at www.johnsoncitytn.org/boards_and_committees.

The openings include:

Animal Control Board: Supervises and governs the policies and activities of the Washington County/Johnson City Animal Control Program and Center, which is responsible for the enforcement of regulations and codes pertaining to animals and prevention of cruelty to animals.

• One appointment for a three-year term. City or county residency required.

Board of Dwelling Standards and Review: Determines action regarding substandard housing and/or commercial structures within the city limits.

• One appointment for a three-year term. City residency required.

BrightRidge Board of Directors: Serves as a liaison between BrightRidge’s customers and management.

• Two appointments, each for four-year terms. City residency required.

Convention and Visitors Bureau Board of Directors: The CVB is to showcase the uniqueness of and develop increased civic interest in Johnson City as an attraction to tourists, visitors and individuals; to solicit special events to take place in Johnson City; to promote the distinctive resources of Johnson City; and to increase the economic contribution of tourism in order to grow Johnson City and relieve the burdens of government.

• Six appointments, each for three-year terms. Three of the positions require management level employment within the lodging industry. Applicants for the remaining three positions must be directly associated with tourism, hospitality, entertainment, retail, finance, or special events. City residency or employment within the municipal limits required.

Housing and Community Development Advisory Board: Advises and makes recommendations concerning housing, community, and economic development issues.

• Four appointments, each for three-year terms. City residency required.

Johnson City Development Authority: Promotes and assists with the development and redevelopment of Johnson City, with specific emphasis on downtown, in collaboration with other entities throughout the community; identifying needs and implementing actions.

• Five appointments, three of which are for three-year terms, and two of which are for two-year terms.

Johnson City Public Library Board: Governing body of the public library.

• Two appointments, each for three-year terms. City residency required.

Johnson City Regional Planning Commission: Administers the City’s Subdivision Regulations and for advising the City Commission on matters of long-range development policy, zoning and annexation.

• Four appointments, each for three-year terms. City residency required.

Parks and Recreation Advisory Board: Makes recommendations regarding recreation services and facilities.

• Four appointments, each for three-year terms. City residency required.

Public Art Committee: Considers matters concerning public art, monuments, murals, or other creative efforts of individuals or groups.

• Four appointments, each for three-year terms.

Public Building Authority: Engages in designing, planning, constructing, acquisition of property, maintenance and operation of projects as directed by the City Commission, as well as issuing debt, accepting encumbered property, or other such activities as delegated by the City Commission.

• Two appointments, each for six-year terms. City residency required.

COVID-19: Northeast Tennessee reports 146 new cases; 52 in Washington County

Northeast Tennessee reported 146 new COVID-19 infections on Wednesday, with two-thirds of them in Sullivan (45) and Washington (52) counties.

The region’s test positivity continues to remain above the state’s. Wednesday’s 1,090 new tests in Northeast Tennessee had an 11.56 positivity rate; the state reported a 6.75% positivity rate.

Over the past week, Sullivan (295) and Washington (294) counties have reported nearly identical new case counts, and account for 60.5% of the region’s new cases reported over that time. While Sullivan and Washington counties are the region’s most populous, their share of the region’s new case load over the last week is slightly larger than their share of the region’s population (56.1%).

Carter (127) and Hawkins (104) are the only other counties in the region that reported more than 100 new cases in the past seven days.

Unsurprisingly, due to the number of cases reported in the two counties, they also account for nearly all of the region’s new hospitalizations (81.8%) and deaths (75%) over the past week. Regionwide, there have been eight new deaths and 22 new hospitalizations reported in the past seven days, along with 973 new infections.

In terms of active cases, Sullivan County (526) leads the region with Washington County (447) following. Both counties are well ahead of the rest of Northeast Tennessee, however, with Carter County (177) the next closest. Greene (142) and Hawkins (144) also have more than 100 active cases.

COVID-19: Interactive charts and graphs