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With variant spread increasing, vaccine appointments go unfilled in Northeast Tennessee

A more transmissible variant of the novel coronavirus is now widespread in Northeast Tennessee and is fueling new cases and hospitalizations across the region, Ballad Health officials said Wednesday.

“Today, I think we’re seeing that we do have a fair amount of spread (of the B.1.1.7 variant) in the region,” said Ballad Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton. “B.1.1.7 has overtaken the original strain of COVID-19 in the region, and really now the B.1.1.7 strain is the dominant strain that we’re seeing.”

The B.1.1.7 variant was first identified in the United Kingdom last September, and is the dominant strain of COVID-19 in the United States.

Ballad recently contracted with Biobot Analytics to test the region’s wastewater for the presence of the variant, which was first identified in Northeast Tennessee in March. Tennessee identified its first case of the variant in January.

In addition to the B.1.1.7 variant, both the P.1 (Brazil) and B.1.351 (South Africa) variants have been identified in the region, Deaton said.

Dr. Clay Runnels, the hospital system’s chief physician executive, said average amount of virus detected at their testing sites was higher than the nationwide average among other sites tested by BioBot. Ballad and Biobot Analytics will conduct an additional three cycles of testing over a four-week period, with the next results expected in about a week.

“These variants are also aggressive, and cause concern that we could have additional spread,” said Deaton. “There is this great deal of virus still in our community, and in order for us to curtail it we have to do the things we continue to talk about.

“It’s really important for us to be aware, and although we feel mask mandates will go away, obviously through the orders from the governor and from our local mayors, it’s still important to take personal responsibility to wear a mask appropriately when you’re in large gatherings.”

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee ended local authority to issue mask mandates, as well as all statewide public health orders on Tuesday, as he declared the the virus was no longer a public health emergency, and was instead a “managed public health issue.”

Deaton said any statewide decision should be made in Nashville, though the region is not out of the woods yet.

Made with Flourish

“I still think that it’s something we have to focus on,” Deaton said. “I think it is an issue for us still locally, so, yes, for us as an organization it is still a heightened issue for us, and we deal with it — we’re obviously still conducting our emergency operations center every day or at least three days a week, we still have phone calls with our local mayors, we’re still doing all the things we were doing in the past, so it still a very important issue and it is still an emergency for us.”

More younger people are being hospitalized, dropping the average age of hospitalization to 59.6 years old.

Sixty-two percent of those hospitalized are between ages 40 and 69, with a “significant” number of 30- and 40-year-olds ending up in the hospital.

Those who are hospitalized are also coming in sicker, according to system numbers indicating a higher proportion of people in intensive care and on ventilators than during a hospitalization peak in December and January.

Of the 122 people hospitalized with COVID-19 on Wednesday, nearly a quarter of them were in intensive care, while 18% were on ventilators. When Ballad reported a peak of 361 hospitalizations on Jan. 5, ICU patients made up about 18.8% of hospitalizations while people on ventilators accounted for 10.2% of patients.

Despite repeated calls from health officials for the public to get the vaccine, which significantly reduces the risk of severe illness, demand for vaccine appointments has fallen considerably in recent weeks: Ballad officials estimated about 10% to 20% of first-dose vaccine appointments are being booked.

The Northeast Regional Health Office, which oversees health departments in seven of the region’s eight counties, has seen fewer than 20% of available appointments booked, though it announced on Tuesday it would no longer require appointments to receive the vaccine.

“Here’s what’s not changed: The vaccine is still a major weapon against all of these strains, and can help us get through the pandemic and get to herd immunity,” said Runnels. “We’re going to continue to encourage people and hope you will encourage your friends, family, neighbors who are eligible to go get the vaccine — it can definitely help save some lives and reduce morbidity in the community as well.”

Dr. David Kirschke, medical director of the regional health office, said staff began taking vaccine doses into community settings like churches and workplaces as demand has fallen at drive-through clinics. Kirschke said vaccine uptake has been lower in more rural counties and with young adults, a trend that also appears with the flu vaccine “perhaps because of a lower perceived risk from the virus.”

“We encourage everyone to get vaccinated because, although the risk does decrease with decreasing age, we see hospitalizations and deaths in all age groups,” Kirschke said. “Also, younger people can transmit coronavirus to older family members and friends. We encourage anyone not already vaccinated to look to credible sources of information, such as the (Tennessee Department of Health) or (U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) website, or to talk with their healthcare provider.

“(The) COVID-19 vaccine is one of our best tools, along with other prevention measures such as mask use, to protect ourselves and our communities from the pandemic,” he said.


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Amazon announces plans for distribution center in Bristol, Virginia

BRISTOL, Va. — Two years after Amazon officials and Gov. Ralph Northam toured Southwest Virginia, the company announced plans for its first delivery center in the region Wednesday.

The facility, to be near Interstate 81’s Exit 7, will allow Amazon to better serve rural customers in the region, said Bristol Virginia City Manager Randy Eads.

According to an Amazon press release Wednesday, the facility will open in the Bristol Virginia Industrial Park at 103 Thomas Road in an existing building and create “hundreds” of jobs. Eads said that contractor J.A. Street and Associates will complete work on the building and additional parking space in July, with the facility opening by late summer or early fall.

According to Amazon spokesperson Courtney Johnson Norman, the delivery center will add last-mile delivery capability as a reception point for packages from the company’s fulfillment and sortation centers. From there, independent contractors and delivery businesses will handle delivery to customers.

Wages for center employees will start at $15 per hour with various benefits on the first day of employment, Norman said.

Norman called the new center an opportunity for entrepreneurs looking to handle Amazon customer deliveries.

“Obviously it’s great news for the city,” Eads said. “It’s a great opportunity for our citizens and another choice of employment for residents.”

Eads pointed to the impact that Amazon, the Michael Waltrip Brewery (slated for a summer opening), and the planned 2023 opening of the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino will have on Bristol’s economy.

Bristol Vice Mayor Anthony Farnum called the announcement “a great day for Bristol.”

“Southwest Virginia is open for business,” Farnum said, “and the capital of Southwest Virginia, Bristol, is leading the way.”

In 2019, Northam and Amazon officials held a roundtable meeting in St. Paul with regional government and business leaders pitching the area as a potential site for company operations, although the company’s team made no comment on planned activity then.

Tri-Cities government and business leaders on Wednesday applauded Amazon’s announcement.

“That visit followed the General Assembly’s approval of legislation to incentivize a second Amazon headquarters in the commonwealth,” said state Sen. Todd Pillion, R-Abingdon, referring to the 2019 roundtable. “I am thrilled that these efforts have provided a foundation for today’s announcement that Amazon will establish a delivery station in Bristol.”

Fifth District state Del. Israel O’Quinn, R-Bristol, and First District state Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, credited economic development partnership InvestSWVA team with helping show Amazon the area and its work force quality.

LENOWISCO Planning District Executive Director Duane Miller said the Amazon announcement highlights how a local business success spreads beyond the locality.

“Studies show a 40–50-mile radius of economic impact with new business locations like this,” Miller said. “The exposure an Amazon or similar company can bring to the region is an important collateral effect. Any win in Southwest Virginia is a win for all of us, especially if we get an Amazon.”

Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable said Amazon’s choice to locate in the area shows the region is “on the map” when it comes to economic development.

“What’s good for the region is good for us all,” Venable said. “This certainly will be jobs for Sullivan Countians. I’m happy for Bristol, Virginia, and I look forward to working with them to maximize the opportunities this brings.”

Kingsport City Manager Chris McCartt said the positive economic impact of this announcement will be felt throughout all of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

“We are pleased to hear that Amazon has announced they are making an investment in Bristol, Virginia, which we hope is the first of more to come by this company in our region,” said McCartt. “Amazon’s entry into our region comes as really no surprise as more and more Americans turned to online shopping during the pandemic, thus creating more demand.”

Kingsport Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Miles Burdine congratulated Bristol for the Amazon facility.

“Every time a company chooses to come to this region, regardless of the specific location, it benefits all of us,” Burdine said.

“We welcome the Amazon distribution center,” Burdine said, “and we are here to support them in any way possible.”

Networks Sullivan Partnership CEO Clay Walker pointed to the employment opportunities on both sides of the state line with the new center.

“Amazon minimum starting wage is $15 an hour with benefits, so that will attract a few folks, I’m sure,” Walker said, adding congratulations to site project coordinator J.A. Street for site preparation.

“They have a great building there,” Walker said of the center’s location, “and I know they are thrilled to have such a recognizable brand fill it and they certainly welcome the jobs, as we all do.”


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Girl Scouts of Southern Appalachians to hold drive-through event as last call for cookies

Here’s your last chance to stock up on Girl Scout cookies and help boost cookie sales that for two years have been negatively impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Girl Scouts of the Southern Appalachians will sell Girl Scout Cookies at a drive-through booth this Saturday in a last call for the community.

The drive-through cookie booth will be at 1910 N. Roan St. (the former Toys-R-Us parking lot) from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The event will be outdoors, and participants will follow all safety protocols, including the wearing of masks by cookie booth staff.

STEPPING UP TO THE CHALLENGE

The COVID-19 pandemic presented a few challenges for this year’s cookie season, but the Girl Scouts of the Southern Appalachians responded with creative solutions, such as online ordering and a Grubhub partnership.

Despite those efforts, cookie sales are down 30% and the nonprofit has just over 100,000 boxes of unsold cookies in East Tennessee. That is almost enough boxes to cover the distance from Interstate 81 to The Mall at Johnson City. Saturday’s event offers the community a final opportunity to stock up on favorite Girl Scout Cookies.

“Two cookie seasons in 2020 and 2021 have now been impacted by the pandemic, but these young entrepreneurs have persevered and learned valuable life and business lessons,” said Lynne Fugate, CEO of the Girl Scouts of the Southern Appalachians. “This event is not only a last call to stock your freezer full of Thin Mints and Samoas. It’s also a great opportunity to support the leadership activities and programs that the girls participate in for the rest of the year.”

THIN MINTS, SAMOAS, TAGALONS, TREFOILS AND MORE

Available cookies include Thin Mints, Samoas, Tagalongs, Do-si-dos, Trefoils, Lemon-Ups, Girl Scout S’mores and Toffee-tastic. Customers can pay by cash or credit card and even donate a box to local health care workers and first responders.

“While this hasn’t been a normal cookie season for us, we’re grateful the community continues to show up and support these young girls,” Fugate said. “Girl Scout Cookies taste a little sweeter when you know you’ve supported the future of female leadership in East Tennessee.”

ABOUT GIRL SCOUTS OF THE SOUTHERN APPALACHIANS

The Girl Scout Council of the Southern Appalachians has more than 13,000 girl and adult members in 46 counties from Southwest Virginia, through eastern Tennessee and northern Georgia. Membership is open to all girls from kindergarten through their senior year in high school. For more information, visit girlscoutcsa.org or call 800-474-1912.


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Local descendant of noted bootleggers plans distillery in Johnson City

Johnson City native Stephen Blevins wants to continue the legacy left by his ancestors — legally.

Having studied his family’s genealogy, Blevins said he’s a descendant of the Wheelocks, a local clan that, according to clippings from Johnson City papers during the 1920s and 1930s, had numerous run-ins with the law during Prohibition.

Capitalizing on the city’s decision last year to lift restrictions on liquor manufacturing, Blevins is now planning to open a distillery in downtown Johnson City with his business partner, Robert Bryan Smith. The name of the business will be Hillbilly Distillers, and their products will be Wheelock Whiskey and Blevins Shine.

Blevins said he’s received his distilling permit and is getting ready to start work at 1121 N. Roan St. Unit 102, where the partners will construct a small distillery. An architect is currently drawing up prints to submit to the city for final approval.

The goal, however, is to move downtown, and Blevins said he’s talked to a few people about potential buildings. He said it’s too early to identify which ones.

With festivals and events habitually drawing crowds to the downtown area, Blevins wants people to be able to walk into the business, which will also feature a small museum showcasing his family history.

A family business

Blevins’ great-grandparents, Sam and Carrie Wheelock, bought their first store in Johnson City in 1918 and had three sons: Don, Bruce and Alf, who is Blevins’ grandfather.

In March 1930, the Johnson City Chronicle reported that federal and city officers had captured 3,672 bottles of Jamaica Ginger (or “Jake”) at the Railway Express Company office at the Clinchfield depot. The raid, the paper reported, was the largest of its kind in Johnson City history.

The ginger was billed to the L&H Grocery Company of Johnson City, “a concern formerly owned and operated by Sam W. Wheelock.”

In another incident reported in the Johnson City Staff-News, Carrie Wheelock was confined in Washington County jail in October 1930 after a raid on the Wheelock grocery store came up with 13 gallons of whiskey.

According to a chief deputy in charge of the raid, 18 half-gallon fruit jars filled with whiskey were concealed beneath the floor of the store, accessible through a sliding door. Eight half-gallon fruit jars were also discovered in the store’s basement. Wheelock was released on a $1,000 bond.

Two years earlier, Blevins’ great-uncle, Don Wheelock, was arrested with seven gallons of whiskey in the “old Car Woods” on North Roan street, the Johnson City Chronicle reported.

“Officers in the party had been watching the woodland section the entire morning after receiving a ‘tip’ that whiskey was being concealed in that community,” the paper said.

The logo for Wheelock Whiskey notes that it’s “Straight outa Little Chicago Prohibition History.”

Looking forward

Currently, Blevins said his permit allows him to make the liquor and sell it wholesale. At the moment, he doesn’t have a permit to sell on-premises. That, he said, will come when the company moves downtown.

He expects the location on North Roan Street will be ready in August or September so they can start working on the recipe.

“We will actually be making the whiskey,” Blevins said. “We’re not going to be having the whiskey sent in from another location and flavoring it. ... It’s really just part of the tradition I want to keep.”

Hillbilly Distillers will join at least one other local whiskey brand in Johnson City.

Tennessee Hills, which was founded in Jonesborough by Stephen Callahan, is planning to establish a major distilling footprint on West Walnut Street, opening a production facility in the Preston Woodworking building at 620 W. Walnut St. There, the company will can wine, sangrias, seltzers, beers and ready-to-drink cocktails.

In recent years, Johnson City has also seen an explosion in the number of local breweries.

“I feel like there’s room for all of us,” Blevins said, “and just like Music Row on Nashville, there’s going to be a liquor row in Johnson City. I think it’s going to be good for tourism.”


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