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Cold Christmas guaranteed, white Christmas possible

There may or may not be a white Christmas this year for some of us in Northeast Tennessee, but one thing is certain — it’s going to be cold.

The latest advisory from the National Weather Service indicated temperatures will drop significantly as a strong storm approaches. It’s expected to move through quickly, but the temperature was expected to dip to 18 degrees Christmas Eve night.

It won’t get much warmer on Christmas Day, with the high expected to be around 25 degrees.

“Very cold air will build into the area during the day Thursday and linger through Friday night. Rain will change to snow Thursday afternoon with a brief period of moderate to heavy snow possible, especially across Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee. Snow showers will linger through at least Friday morning,” according to the National Weather Service advisory on its website.

“Snow accumulations of two to five inches are possible across Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, and the Smoky Mountains. The Cumberland Plateau, parts of the central valley, and southwest North Carolina could see between 1/2 and 1 1/2 inches of snow.”

Christmas Eve will start with rain showers and fog, but a high in the mid-50s. That night, however, snow showers are expected. For Christmas Day there is a 20 percent chance of flurries with a slight chance of snow showers. It should be mostly cloudy with a high near 25 degrees. The low that night will dip to 14 degrees.

But it isn’t just the temperature officials watch. They also consider the wind flow, “which can produce dangerous wind chills from 5 below zero to 5 above zero across the higher elevations for Thursday night through Friday night.”

Along with those frigid temperatures comes the dangers faced by the homeless, as well as those who are not homeless. According to Johnson City Fire Chief Jim Stables, the holiday season is often when fire danger increases.

He said an apartment fire in Johnson City last week was an example of how easily a fire can start.

That fire, like many, was caused by a wall heater that turned on and the combustible material stored nearby was ignited. Wall heaters do not have on/off switches. Instead the lowest setting is in the 50-degree range, so they will turn on automatically when the inside temperature drops.

More fire safety tips:

  • When cooking, don’t leave pots on the stove and walk away;
  • Candles are something easily knocked down by pets or children so be sure to keep them in a safe place;
  • Check smoke and CO2 detectors;
  • Don’t overload electrical outlets; and
  • Don’t hide electrical cords under carpets.

“We just want everybody to have a very safe and Merry Christmas; Stables said the firefighters are available to answer questions about fire safety. For more information on that, call 423-975-2840.

Safety tips for pets:

  • Bring pets indoors during freezing weather;
  • When they are outside, be sure they have shelter, food and clean, unfrozen water;
  • Wipe their paws after they have been outside to protect them from frostbite and salt treatments on the roads; and
  • Check under vehicle hoods before starting out to ensure no animal has sought shelter in the engine.

Safety tips for home:

  • During long periods of freezing temperatures, set faucets to drip so the lines don’t freeze. Five drips per minute should be sufficient;
  • Insulate water lines;
  • Open cabinet doors;
  • Turn water off at the street if pipes freeze; amd
  • Protect outside faucets with insulated covers.

Other helpful information:

  • Check on neighbors and the elderly to make sure they aren’t negatively affected by freezing temperatures;
  • Dress in layers, with a wind-resistant outer layer;
  • When it is cold, wear a hat, mittens or insulated gloves. Keep your face warm with a scarf, neck tube or facemask; and
  • Wear warm and waterproof footwear. When it is very cold, or when the wind chill is significant, cover as much exposed skin as possible.

Johnson City girl's letter to Santa offers glimpse of childhood in 1929

Simpler times. A simpler list.

In 1929, 9-year-old Johnson City resident Ruby Mitchell wrote to Santa Claus with modest requests. This was, of course, before Christmas lists turned into the expensive, commercialized wishes we know in 2020. There were no smartphones, game consoles, bluetooth headphones and hoverboards to beg Santa to deliver.

No, all Ruby wanted was a few of life’s basics and treats. And she made sure her little sister, Queenie, wouldn’t go without, either.

Nov. 17, 1929

Dear Santa Claus:

I am a little girl 9 years old and I go to school every day. I am in the second grade, and I go to Sunday school nearly every Sunday. I have got the best teacher ever was; her name is Mrs. Bessie Shell. She never forgets us little girls, and God will bless her, for she is so good to every one. I want you to bring me an umbrella and a pair of shoes and a doll and some oranges and apples, candy, nuts, grapes, and my little sister wants just what I want. So please don’t forget us, Dear Santa. My name is


622 E. Pine St.

Johnson City, Tenn.

To dear Old Santa Claus — hoping to see you soon.

Ruby’s letter appeared in a local newspaper.

Our research came empty as to which edition included her wishes; it might have been the Johnson City Chronicle or the Staff-News. Her daughter, Patsy Sanders Bailey, stopped by our office with an original clipping — a treasured family keepsake for sure.

Born in Avery County, North Carolina, Ruby came to Johnson City with her parents, John and Irene Mitchell, in 1922 and went on to a long life here. She was the oldest of five children and grew up in the Tree Streets neighborhood, mainly on West Poplar Street.

Throughout her life, Ruby’s name appeared numerous times in this newspaper as she made the honor rolls in school, entertained, participated in various civic activities, celebrated the marriages of her children and mourned the loss of one.

Ruby Mitchell Sanders' bridal portrait from April 1937 as it appeared in the Johnson City Press.

In 1937, she hosted a surprise 21st birthday party for her future husband, Sam Sanders. They married the following April. The marriage ended in divorce in the late 1940s, so Ruby raised her two daughters with her parents at their home. She attended Tacoma Church of God and worked at the Veterans Administration Medical Center until retirement.

Ruby died at age 77 in 1998, leaving behind her daughter Patsy, her sister, two of her three brothers, four grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. The family has grown since.

Ruby Mitchell Sanders later in life.

Photo contributed by Patsy Sanders Bailey

Ruby’s childhood letter to Santa in 1929 and the life she led serve as reminders of life’s essentials and the importance of family. That’s especially significant here at Christmas in 2020 as we try to hold onto the connections made so challenging by current events.

We don’t know whether Ruby received her umbrella, new shoes, doll and treats. One can hope Santa granted her wishes.

Mass vaccinations for first responders underway at Freedom Hall

A line of cars wrapped around the Liberty Bell complex and Freedom Hall on Wednesday, carrying first responders who were eligible to receive some of the first doses of Moderna’s novel coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine in the region.

“We’re going to keep vaccinating until we run out of vaccine,” said Dr. David Kirschke, the medical director of the Northeast Regional Health Office.

The drive-through event Wednesday served as the first round of vaccinations for first responders in Washington County.

Kirschke said the Health Department is primarily vaccinating first responders, who have top priority in the state’s vaccination plan and appear in one of the earliest phases.

That early vaccination group, phase 1a1, also includes inpatient and other high-exposure health care workers plus residents and staff at long-term care facilities. Altogether, the state estimates this group constitutes roughly 450,000 people.

If the Health Department receives enough vaccines over the weekend to cover all first responders who want it, Kirschke said, officials may start opening the process up to people in phase 1a2, which includes all other health care workers with direct exposure to patients. The state estimates that that group totals roughly 100,000 people statewide.

Currently, Kirschke said the Health Department is just receiving the Moderna vaccine.

Kirschke said the Health Department received 600 doses of the Moderna vaccine for Washington County and started Wednesday with 520 doses, which they expected to be exhausted by the end of the day. The department was anticipating another 600 doses Wednesday or Thursday, he said.

Kirschke expects those doses will almost exactly cover all the first responders and frontline healthcare workers who have registered to receive the vaccine.

The department is also hearing that it will start receiving weekly shipments of the Moderna vaccine and will continue to have vaccination clinics and vaccinate by phases depending on availability.

The Health Department has asked people to pre-register to receive the vaccine based on the number of doses that the department has. Kirschke expects the department will continue vaccinating on Thursday and Saturday as long as it still has doses. They’ll keep inviting people to receive the vaccine until the doses are gone.

First responders who receive their Moderna vaccine will have to come back in 28 days to receive their second dose. Both the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines require two doses. Hospitals are currently receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, which is being administered to frontline healthcare workers.

“The Moderna vaccine, like the Pfizer vaccine, is shown to be safe and effective,” Kirschke said. “That’s one of our most important tools to ... try to control coronavirus and get back to normal.”

Health officials are also recommending that people continue to wear masks and practice social distancing even after they receive the vaccine.

“It’s amazing to think that this is potentially the beginning of the end of this pandemic,” said Washington County Mayor Joe Grandy on Wednesday, “and we can get back to some semblance of normalcy. It’s been long awaited, and I think it’s amazing, frankly, that we had the vaccine this soon.”

Decrease in testing leads to fewer new reported cases in NETN; active cases see slight uptick

Northeast Tennessee’s novel coronavirus (COVID-19) testing volume remained well below the monthly average for the second day in a row Wednesday, and the region’s positive test rate climbed again, pushing the seven-day positivity rate to its highest point in 11 days.

On Wednesday, the region reported 1,054 new tests — below the average of 2,821.7 new tests reported in the seven days preceding Tuesday, a day in which only 464 new tests were reported. As a result, the positive test rate for Wednesday was up to 31.02%, while the seven-day rate increased to 25.5%.

Only one of the region’s eight counties (Hawkins, 19.79%) reported a positive test rate below 20% on Monday, with the highest daily rate reported in Carter County (47.32%). Sullivan County (27.1%) reported the most new tests with 428, followed by Washington County’s (35.6%) 250 new tests.

As a result of the low volume of tests reported in the past two days, Northeast Tennessee’s seven-day average for new cases declined to its lowest point since Dec. 12. The region is averaging 559.8 new cases per day over the last week, down from a high of 671.7 reported on Dec. 19.

Region’s active case count rises slightly

There were 5,530 active cases in Northeast Tennessee on Wednesday, the region’s third-highest total — down from a record 6,036 reported on Monday. Overall, active cases increased by 39 across the region, though that’s almost exclusively due to Washington County’s increase of 82 active cases.

Aside from Washington County’s increase, two other counties (Carter and Johnson) reported a combined increase of three active cases. Hancock and Sullivan counties had no change in their counts, while Greene (-16), Hawkins (-29) and Unicoi (-1) reported decreases.

Statewide, active cases fell by 480 to 79,274.

Ballad’s hospitalizations, deaths expected to continue rise following holidays

Last week, Ballad Health recorded 7,680 new COVID-19 cases across its 21-county service area — a record amount expected to fuel a corresponding rise in hospitalizations and deaths as the region’s surge continues to worsen.

According to Ballad’s predictive modeling, the region could see upwards of 600 new hospitalizations and 200 deaths in the two weeks between Dec. 20 and Jan. 2, an increase that could lead to a rise in inpatients with a worst-case scenario carrying the potential to overrun the system’s surge capacity of 460 to 475 patients.

Ballad’s predictive modeling shows two scenarios — one where the virus’ reproduction number (R0 or r-naught), the number of people each infected person infects, remains around 1.2 and one where it rises to 1.4. The worst-case scenario with a R0 of 1.2 would have the system peak around 350 inpatients, while a R0 of 1.4 could see up to 550 hospitalizations.

Ballad Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton said that, based on the system’s inpatient census, it appears they haven’t reached a R0 of 1.4, but are above 1.2.

As of Wednesday, Ballad had 305 (-28) patients hospitalized with the virus, 59 (-8) of which were in intensive care and 42 (-4) on ventilators. There were 74 available COVID-designated beds as well, an increase of 19 from Tuesday. Deaton said Wednesday that the system’s medical/surgical beds were at 87.3% capacity while ICU beds were at 93.9% capacity.

Deaton said the number of hospitalizations could be much higher were it not for a “Safe at Home” program for patients on the border of needing admission. Those borderline patients who come into a hospital are given oxygen, pulse oximeters and telehealth appointments to monitor their progress. The program has treated 250 patients, of which around 45 to 50 have been discharged.

“It’s basically a care-at-home model, and that’s been very successful at helping us reduce those borderline admissions,” said Dr. Clay Runnels, the system’s chief physician executive.