Healthcare officials urged people to wear masks and practice social distancing in order to stop this spike.
AXTON-Ballad Health, and Southwest Virginia in general, has a problem. Unless something changes soon, the healthcare provider won’t have enough beds to handle the COVID-19 cases coming in. And then there’s the 181 staff members currently in quarantine to talk about.
“Our region is, frankly, at a really bad place in this pandemic,” said Jamie Swift.
Swift works as Ballad’s Chief Infection Prevention Officer. Speaking in a press conference Wednesday, she said Ballad is currently treating 169 patients with COVID-19 in their facilities. Out of that number, 29 are in intensive care and 15 are on ventilators.
“This is the highest number of inpatients that we have ever had,” Swift said. “Let that sink in.”
The problem, she explained, is that at current levels, Ballad’s patient occupancy stands at 88.5% of ICU beds. The medical/surgical occupancy stands at 94.1%. Across the entire system, Ballad has 16 available ICU beds and 27 beds set aside for COVID-19 patients.
“To put everything bluntly, we very easily could run out of resources for our patients,” said Ballad Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton. “Our supplies – including PPE – are in great shape. What we’re limited in, though, is our most important resource, our team members.”
Deaton was referring to the 181 company employees currently in quarantine. Right now, Ballad is just trying to find people to fill shifts. Some of those in quarantine have been diagnosed with the virus. Others have simply shown symptoms and are being tested. They have to test negative before being allowed back at work. An inconclusive test won’t count.
“Each of those team members who’s out right now, trying to recover from the virus, is one less person to care for patients who need them,” Swift said.
By the numbers
Ballad operates medical facilities in Tennessee, North Carolina and Kentucky, as well as parts of Southwest Virginia. In the Commonwealth, Ballad has hospitals and emergency departments in Abingdon, Big Stone Gap, Clintwood, Lebanon, Marion and Norton. Deaton said the company and its employees have done everything possible to maintain capacity at local hospitals. But they’re out of time and out of manpower.
“We do have people who are working overtime, picking up extra shifts, contract labor,” Deaton said. “We have to be very careful. You can only work so many hours. Our team members get burned out.”
Speaking an hour before Gov. Ralph Northam gave a similar press conference in Richmond, Deaton explained that Ballad is about out of options. The company saw a 43% increase in COVID-19 cases across the southwest region last week. If another surge comes in, there’s no guarantee Ballad’s facilities will be able to handle it.
A problem with masks
Part of the issue in Southwest Virginia is a simple refusal to wear masks.
“We’ve talked and talked about mask use, but we still see so many people flouting mask recommendations or openly defying them,” Swift said. “A lot of you are trying. But a lot – and just trying – isn’t good enough anymore. We have to be all-in.”
It doesn’t matter if you’re showing symptoms or not. It doesn’t matter if you’re 21 or 81. Swift asked Southwest Virginia residents to start wearing masks, so the region’s caseload will decline. That’s been the issue, however, as many local residents don’t believe masks protect people from the virus.
According to the Mayo Clinic, a cloth mask traps any droplets from when the person talks, coughs or sneezes. The goal isn’t to protect yourself here. It’s to protect others. A cloth mask keeps people who may be asymptomatic from transmitting the virus.
The N95 is another type of mask that filters out both large and small particles. The name references the fact this mask blocks 95% of all material. This version protects the person wearing it.
Swift asked residents to wear one of the two types whenever they go out. She also said if you are a Southwest Virginia resident and can stay home, please do it.
“I know this is hard,” Swift said. “Please don’t give up. It’s been a long road and we’re not close to the finish line. But we can’t falter. The consequences are too dire.”
Deaton agreed, asking people to think about healthcare workers before going out maskless.
“Show them the respect of doing what you can to protect our communities from COVID-19,” Deaton said. “We’re fighting in the hospitals. You can fight in the community.”
Brian Carlton is Dogwood’s managing editor. You can reach him at [email protected].