Ballad Health Press Conference

Ballad Health Director of Infection Prevention Jamie Swift speaks during a press conference Wednesday at the hospital system's facility at 303 Med Tech Parkway in Johnson City.

Ballad Health Hospitalizations

A graph provided by Ballad Health shows the number of COVID-19 patients at the hospital system's facilities from late May through a portion of July. It also shows the number of patients under investigation for COVID-19.

Ballad Health has identified a cluster of positive novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in its geriatric psychiatry unit at Sycamore Shoals Hospital in Elizabethton.

In total, 29 people at the facility have tested positive for the virus, including 23 employees and six patients.

Jamie Swift, Ballad’s director of infection prevention, said those who have tested positive are now isolated.

“We’re taking every precaution to prevent any further spread within that unit,” she said.

Safeguards have included testing all Sycamore Shoals employees, totaling 300 tests, and placing any new admissions to the facility in a closed unit staffed by employees who have tested negative for the virus.

Swift said the first case at Sycamore Shoals was diagnosed on July 8, at which time the system immediately notified the Tennessee Department of Health.

“More importantly than coming together and trying to make a large community announcement, we wanted to make sure we had our patients and our team members safe first,” Swift said, responding to a question about why the system waited until Wednesday to announce the outbreak at the facility.

She said staff spent the majority of July 8-9 calling the families of patients who were directly affected. Swift said focusing on patients, getting employees tested and establishing the scale of the cluster were the system’s priorities.

“We didn’t have anything to say until we knew the size and scope of the cluster,” Swift said. “(We’re) not hiding anything. When clusters like this happen it just takes a few days to really gather the data, do the testing and really know what we have.”

Doubling hospitalizations

Regionally, Ballad officials said they are continuing to see a rapid increase in the number of COVID-19 cases.

The hospital system reported Wednesday that it has 60 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, more than double the 29 patients Ballad was caring for as of July 10. Of that number, 14 are in intensive care and eight are on ventilators. The system’s patient capacity is at 78.6%.

“These numbers indicate that really this disease is spreading more rapidly than ever right here in our community,” Swift said.

Additionally, Swift said case numbers are not going up simply because the state is conducting more tests, noting that the positivity rate of tests has increased from less than 1% in April to more than 2% now.

Visitation changes

Although Ballad won’t yet return to the strict limitations seen earlier in the outbreak, Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton said the system will be implementing additional restrictions on visitation starting Friday.

Patients will be allowed to have one visitor, who will be designated by the patient upon admission. Deaton said this is intended to cut down on the number of people entering Ballad facilities, protecting employees and patients.

The system will continue to screen visitors as they enter Ballad facilities, and visitors will be expected to wear a mask.

Deaton said visitation will continue to be restricted in Ballad’s long-term care and behavioral health facilities, and the visitation policies will remain the same for pediatric and NICU patients and expectant mothers.

Adding capacity

Dr. Clay Runnels, the system’s chief physician executive, said Ballad currently has about 40 COVID-19 beds available.

“Given the trends in our region we will definitely need more,” Runnels said.

To create more capacity for COVID-19 patients, Runnels said Ballad Health will relocate staff from certain hospitals in its system to other nearby facilities. By making these changes, Runnels said the system hopes to add 50 additional COVID-19 beds.

“Shifting these team members to our tertiary hospitals right now is our only option as we respond to the current situation, and these moves will maximize our resources at these facilities to care for COVID-19 patients,” he said.

This week, Ballad notified employees at Hawkins County Memorial Hospital and Hancock Memorial Hospital that it would be temporarily pausing medical admissions and surgical procedures at the two facilities.

Medical admissions will stop at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, and surgeries will stop at the completion of the final scheduled case on Friday. The hospitals’ emergency departments will remain open.

Ballad anticipates this will free up about 35 additional employees to assist with an anticipated COVID-19 surge at Holston Valley Medical Center.

Asked if Ballad would be implementing similar steps to redirect staff to Johnson City Medical Center and Bristol Regional Medical Center, Lindy White, the Northwest Market president for Ballad Health, said she was only prepared to speak about ongoing plans in the system’s Northwest region.

“Every market has their own plans in the works,” she said.

Worst case scenario

Deaton said the health system has also been modeling hospitalization numbers based on a series of variables.

According to a graph provided by Ballad, the worst case scenario shows COVID-19 hospitalizations climbing dramatically through late August to about 350 before leveling off and decreasing around the end of September, an outcome that Deaton said would overwhelm the system.

He said Ballad’s COVID-19 capacity is currently between 100-150 beds.

“We’ll continue to create capacity moving forward, but if we get into these ranges we will start to see very much an overwhelming of the health care system,” he said.

Deaton said the model takes into account current rates of COVID-19 spread and lax adherence to precautions like social distancing and mask wearing.

“If we don’t start making some changes in behavior and the way we’re conducting our day-to-day lives then we can expect to see that continue to grow exponentially,” Deaton said.

Reported earlier:

Ballad Health has identified a cluster of positive novel coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in its geriatric psychiatry unit at Sycamore Shoals Hospital in Elizabethton.

In total, 29 people at the facility have tested positive for the virus, including 23 employees and 6 patients.

Jamie Swift, Ballad’s director of infection prevention, said these people had been isolated.

“We’re taking every precaution to prevent any further spread within that unit,” she said.

Those safeguards have included testing all Sycamore Shoals employees, totaling 300 tests, to identify the scale of the problem, and any new admissions to the facility are being placed in a closed unit staffed by employees who have tested negative for COVID-19.

The hospital system reported Wednesday that it has 60 COVID-19 patients hospitalized, more than double the 29 patients Ballad was caring for on July 10. Of that number, 14 are in intensive care and eight are on ventilators. The system’s patient capacity is at 78.6%.

“These numbers indicate that really this disease is spreading more rapidly than ever right here in our community,” Swift said.

Additionally, Swift said case numbers are not going up simply because the state is conducting more tests. She said the positivity rate of tests has increased from less than 1% in April to more than 2% now.