Northeast Tennessee reported its 500th novel coronavirus-related (COVID-19) fatality on Thursday, doubling its count in the 40 days since Halloween.

Half of all deaths in the region have been reported since the beginning of November, with 253 reported dead since then. November was the deadliest month of the pandemic in Northeast Tennessee with 176 new deaths reported, though December is on pace to shatter that record. Seventy-nine deaths have been reported since Dec. 1, an average of 7.9 per day. If that rate holds, the region could see more than 240 reported deaths this month.

There were six new deaths reported across five counties on Thursday, with Carter (+2), Hawkins (+1), Johnson (+1), Sullivan (+1) and Unicoi (+1) counties each adding to their tolls. Washington County still leads the region in virus-related fatalities with 128, two more than Sullivan County.

The region reported 1,396 new tests on Thursday, slightly below the average of 1,615 new tests over the past seven days. As a result, the region’s positive test rate increased to its highest level since Nov. 24 — a day where only 105 new tests were reported, 86.67% of which were positive. Aside from that day, which was caused by a reporting delay, Thursday’s positive test rate is the highest the region has seen since August, with 34.24% of tests returning a positive result.

No county reported a positive test rate below 20%.

Ballad Health reported a record 69 COVID-19 patients in intensive care on Thursday, an increase of seven from Wednesday’s then-record total of 62. It comes on a day Ballad announced the morgue at Johnson City Medical Center was full, sharing a photo of its refrigerated morgue truck parked outside JCMC on social media.

On Twitter, Ballad CEO Alan Levine said “the thought of having to use this morgue is stomach turning.”

Ballad is bracing for what it calls a surge on top of surge, with room for up to 460 to 465 COVID-19 inpatients, which leaders expect to reach by the end of the year. The bigger concern, however, may be intensive care unit capacity, which was down to 3% systemwide, with only 12 COVID-designated ICU beds still available.

Asked if the possibility of being forced to ration care was realistic, Ballad execs said it was, and that measures like eliminating elective surgeries showed the system was already starting to do that in some ways. Rationing care is best described as an effort to give the most people the best care they can.

East Tennessee State University officials issued an alert to students and employees earlier today about an "armed and dangerous" man who had escaped from police custody.

The shelter in place alert was issued about 9:15 a.m. and later lifted by the school. The fugitive was identified as Mark Hanselman, 55. He is 5 feet, 8 inches tall and weighs 165 pounds. Hanselman has charges out of Greene County for aggravated burglary, felon in possession of firearm, and theft.

Hanselman, of Indiana, had escaped from custody at Johnson City Medical Center after being shot last week by Greene County deputies following a burglary on Laughlin Road. This is a developing story, so please keep visiting JohnsonCityPress.com for more information. 

The Elizabethton City Council unanimously elected Curt Alexander to another term as mayor during its regular December meeting on Thursday night.

This marks the eighth two-year term as mayor of Elizabethton for Alexander. He has served as mayor since 2006. Charles Stahl was the city manager at that time. He was first elected to the City Council in 2004 and succeeded Janie McKinney as mayor in 2006.

And, finally - congratulations to Elizabethton High School football - the Cyclones won their second consecutive state title and completed a second straight undefeated season with a 41-14 win over Haywood in last Saturday's Class 4A state title game at Tennessee Tech's Tucker Stadium in Cookeville. Coach Shawn Witten and State 4A Mr. Football Parker Hughes led the team all year long, as they were ranked #1 from preseason until the final buzzer.

Have a great weekend, everyone, and please - stay safe and responsible, and do your best to keep yourself and those around you healthy and well.