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Ballad Health: More transmissible COVID strain propelling local surge

Ballad Health officials believe the B117 variant, a more transmissible strain of COVID-19, is driving the recent surge in cases in Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

“This is not too surprising as that strain is becoming the dominant strain in many areas of the United States,” said Clay Runnels, the system’s chief physician executive, during a press conference with local media on Wednesday.

To determine the prevalence of COVID-19 variants, the health system has hired Biobot Analytics, a company that uses sewage to map population health, to test wastewater across the region.

Runnels said preliminary results show a large amount of COVID-19 in regional wastewater, which suggests significant spread of the virus. Additionally, Biobot’s analysis detected the B117 strain.

The health system will have more data to share as testing finishes over the next several days, Runnels said.

“We’re trying to share what we can confidently say at this point,” he said.

Runnels said the B117 variant, which the U.S. Centers for Disease Control says is believed to have first emerged in the United Kingdom during September, spreads more easily than the original COVID-19 strain detected in China.

“However, the B117 strain is well covered by our vaccines,” Runnels said.

Dr. David Reagan, a pandemic consultant who has expertise in epidemiology and infectious disease, said COVID-19 can leave the body through feces, and experts have been able to use this to identify the virus in wastewater.

Ballad hopes to present a regional assessment of the data next week. Until the system has its final results, Reagan said, Ballad can’t identify cities or counties where it’s testing wastewater.

“I don’t want to misrepresent any of the information, but I think the overall results that we have make it clear that this (the B117 strain) is the driver for the region as a whole right now,” he said.

The health system has also seen vaccine uptake start to lag, and leaders continue to encourage people who are eligible to get vaccinated.

“If we can get a good uptake of the vaccine over the next five or six weeks, we feel like we can get to a place where the surge will decline,” Runnels said. “That’s the best way to get through the pandemic and save lives.”

Jamie Swift, Ballad’s chief infection prevention officer, stressed that the next few weeks will be critical.

“We know the variant’s here, we know it’s driving that transmission, and so our actions for the next several weeks really could have a very large impact on the region,” she said.

She added that the demand for first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have declined dramatically, and multiple appointments are available. Swift reiterated that residents should continue to wear masks and avoid large crowds.

Starting Wednesday, Swift said, people receiving COVID tests through Ballad Health will be able to receive their results on the same day.

“Please, if you’re having symptoms, if you’ve had exposure, make your appointment,” Swift said. “Get that test.”

As local officials hope to see tourism and events return with the resurgence of summer, Runnels said the system is still opposed to large gatherings, and they’re not a good idea with the surge in COVID-19 cases ongoing.

“We feel confident that within a few weeks we can really see potentially a permanent decline in our numbers if we can get people to adhere for a period of time to these small gatherings, masks and really key is the vaccine,” Runnels said. “If we can get enough people to get the vaccine we believe that we can see this start to decline.”

How do the numbers look?

Ballad Health had 137 COVID-19 patients hospitalized at its facilities on Wednesday, the highest since late January. Of those, 29 are in the intensive care unit and 20 are on ventilators.

The system’s 21-county service area has a positive rate of 11.7%, which is higher than the state averages for Tennessee and Virginia. The rate measures the percentage of positive test results. A positive rate of 5% is the goal.

Over the past month-and-a-half, there’s been a 7% to 8% increase in new COVID cases per week, jumping from 897 the week ending March 6 to 1,555 last week. The average age of Ballad’s in-house COVID deaths has also declined from 74 in January to 66 now.

Through Tuesday, the system reported it has administered a total of 41,902 first-dose vaccines and 37,399 second doses. A total of 144,998 completed vaccinations have been administered across Ballad’s service area in Tennessee, which represents 23.6% of the region’s population across all ages.

Plans: West Walnut Street distillery will feature beer garden, rooftop bar

A museum, a rooftop bar, a beer garden and a glass-enclosed tower encasing a multi-story piece of distilling equipment will be fixtures of one of Tennessee Hills’ forthcoming locations on West Walnut Street.

Scott Andrew, a businessman who is partnering with distillery owner Stephen Callahan on the project, has shared preliminary designs for the proposed facility at 620 W. Walnut St., which has been home to Preston Woodworking.

The business partners recently bought the building. It will serve as the company’s main production facility, where Tennessee Hills will can wine, sangrias, seltzers, beers and ready-to-drink cocktails. Callahan and Andrew expect to be able to produce 50 barrels of whiskey a day out of the location.

A preliminary design of the structure shows the first floor will be largely dominated by a distillery and a bar/restaurant. The bottom level will also have outdoor dining, merchandising and an outdoor beer garden, which has access to the bar. There will also be an indoor and outdoor stage.

The building’s still will be visible to customers at the restaurant and on all three floors of the building through glass panels and windows. The 50-foot column still will stretch even higher than the third floor of the building.

The second floor will have a museum, space for special events, a tasting bar and a mezzanine that will provide a view of the distillery below. The third floor will have a rooftop bar.

Andrew and Callahan have also officially closed on the Accurate Machine Products building at 710 W. Walnut St., which the partners plan to turn into a boutique-style hotel shaped like a rickhouse, a warehouse for aging whiskey. That will be part of the second phase of the project.

Documents from the Washington County register of deeds office show David Preston sold the property at 620 W. Walnut St. for almost $1.25 million in January. Accurate Machine Products sold its building at 710 W. Walnut St. for $750,000 in April.

Additionally, the partners have bought the assets of JRH Brewing and will occupy the brewery’s former building at 458 W. Walnut St. There, the company will brew beer and produce spirits. The building will also have a taproom and cocktail bar for visitors. Callahan and Andrew have said they plan to open that location in late-May or mid-June.

The partners’ multi-million-dollar investment along West Walnut Street occurs as Johnson City prepares to pump $25 million into dramatically overhauling the streetscape of the corridor. The city hopes construction will start on the road project in June.

Crews will replace the existing street with a new pedestrian-friendly roadway that will consist of sidewalks on both sides, on-street parking and a bike lane. The new street will also have raised intersections and slight curves to help slow the speed of traffic.

In March, Andrew met with the Johnson City Development Authority’s Tax Increment Financing Advisory Council to talk about the project. Andrew said he and Callahan are still deciding whether they want to formally request TIF money.

Another major project along West Walnut Street, the revitalization of the Model Mill, did benefit from TIF funding.

Transitional living for aged out foster kids gets financial boost

A local non-profit organization that provided necessities to foster care kids recently dissolved, and the board was required to donate the remaining funds to another non-profit.

That ended with a big financial boost for a start-up non-profit this week.

When Joni Cannon, founder of Cap the Gap of Carter County, saw a Johnson City Press article about a new non-profit that will serve kids at risk of homelessness or those exiting the foster care system, a light bulb turned on in her head.

The demise of Cap the Gap, which was hit hard by COVID, became a windfall for Huschka House, an organization that provides housing for kids who have nowhere to go when they age out of foster care.

Cannon and the organization’s board voted to disperse its remaining funds after dissolving to two other non-profits.

For Huschka House, founded by Donna Cherry, it meant a $12,000 boost that will be put to use pretty quickly.

Huschka House owns two homes that will provide a place for kids in foster care who have nowhere to go when they turn 18. There are separate residences for boys and girls.

The girls’ house got its first resident about a month ago, and a second just this week. There’s only one more bedroom available, and already a waiting list.

“For us, it’s more than just providing a bedroom ... it’s providing positive role modeling,” Cherry said. “You deserve to have a better shot at life,” than becoming homeless at 18.

On Wednesday, when the money was officially handed over, Huschka House co-founder Steve McKinney said he hopes to get started immediately on adding two bedrooms to the upstairs area of the girl’s home.

The boy’s home still needs some finishing touches but will soon be ready to house five residents at a time.

Cannon started Cap the Gap of Carter County in 2013 after her daughter, an attorney for the Department of Children’s Services, told her about the non-profit that already operated in Sullivan County, and how there was a need for the same support in other areas of the region.

In a 2013 Johnson City Press article on Cap the Gap, Cannon said the purpose was to develop and implement strategies to meet the needs of foster children in the Carter County/Johnson County/Unicoi County areas of East Tennessee and provide assistance for foster children in those communities.

That assistance ranged from emergency needs like clothes, backpacks, school supplies, toiletries and snacks to day camps, physical education and recreation, and extracurricular activities.

Hushka House takes that a step further to help kids as they become adults and must learn how to take care of themselves in the world. The residents will be required to work and will have assistance in finding a job and navigating the process to continue their education if they choose.

“I always thought there needed to be something for those kids who age out of the system,” Cannon said. “For them to have the kind of support Donna will be able to give them, having two separate houses for boys and girls, that’s going to be wonderful.

“It’s a wonderful thing that’s starting in our community and it needs community support. I hope it will grow. I encourage all those wonderful supporters of Cap the Gap to check out Huschka House and donate to them.”

For more information about Huschka House and its mission, visit www.Huschka House.org or the organization’s Facebook page at facebook.com/huschkahouse.

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Access ETSU surprises student accepted into its program

Will Gott arrived at East Tennessee State University on Wednesday thinking he was going on a tour of the campus.

But when he entered Warf-Pickel Hall, he was greeted by ETSU mascot Bucky, ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland and Access ETSU Director Dr. Dawn Rowe, who surprised Gott with acceptance into the Access ETSU program, a two-year, non-degree program that prepares students with intellectual disabilities for meaningful employment.

Gott is one of 12 people recently accepted into the program thanks to a $2.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Asked why he wanted to attend ETSU, Gott was quick to answer.

“Because I want to learn,” said Gott, who garnered some national notoriety when he met and sang with country music star Garth Brooks back in 2019. Gott also treated those in the room with a performance of the song “Little Bitty” by Alan Jackson.

“It’s wonderful, and the chance to be a part of today is a humbling opportunity,” said Noland, adding that the university was excited to have Gott attend, and that he looks forward to seeing what he can accomplish.

“The chance to see people make memories and to be a part of something bigger is the reason why we’re here,” Noland said.

Rowe said when she learned Access ETSU would receive the grant, she was ecstatic. Rowe noted that the grant is “super competitive,” and this was their first time applying.

“The fact that we were able to be competitive in that competition was huge, and the fact that we were first-timers even submitting that was a big deal,” said Rowe.

“I was super ecstatic that we got it.”