Southwest Virginia Sees COVID-19 Infections Drop

By Ashley Spinks Dugan

February 16, 2021

With more residents getting vaccinated and following health guidelines, the region’s infection rate significantly drops.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – After a “pretty horrible” post-Thanksgiving surge in COVID-19 cases, Southwest Virginia residents woke up and started taking public health guidelines more seriously. That’s according to Jamie Swift, the chief infection prevention officer for Ballad Health. The health system serves the region including far Southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee. Swift said changes in personal behavior, coupled with a steady vaccination program, have helped bring down COVID-19 positivity rates in the region. 

These measures have contributed to tremendous progress for the Ballad Health region, once considered the “problem child” of the state. In the first couple weeks of January, Ballad regularly reported daily rolling positivity rates in the mid-30s. On the COVID “scorecard” released Feb. 15, the positivity rate was 14.5%. Ballad had fewer than 100 COVID patients in the hospital, and almost 24,000 people in the region have received both vaccine doses.

RELATED: Virginia State Senator Dies From COVID-19 Complications

Southwest Virginia Leads in Vaccination 

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam commended Southwest Virginia in a recent press conference for the region’s high rate of vaccination. Indeed, a statewide map provided by the Virginia Department of Health shows Southwest Virginia leading vaccination efforts. Although fewer people live in that area of Virginia and so, fewer overall have been vaccinated, a greater proportion of the population is now protected against COVID.

Progress is continuing statewide as well. Overall, about 12% of Virginians have received at least one dose of coronavirus vaccine, and more than 350,000 people are fully vaccinated. Swift said each successful vaccination represents one step toward herd immunity and a return to relatively normal life.

“We try to stress – with every vaccine, there’s benefit to the community,” Swift said during a Feb. 16 phone call. “Every person that is fully vaccinated, that’s one less area that transmission will be able to occur.” Swift said 70% is a nationally accepted benchmark for critical mass of vaccination. 

She credited Dr. Karen Shelton, director of the Mount Rogers Health District, as well as leaders at VDH, for the region’s vaccination success. Swift said clear coordination between the statewide health department, regional health districts and healthcare facilities is key to effective vaccination efforts. As pharmacies, such as CVS, start vaccinating as well, this creates “multiple access points” for folks to get their shots, Swift said.

Fewer Cases Means Less Stress 

The decline in positivity rates has offered a crucial reprieve for area healthcare workers. “I don’t know that anyone truly—including myself—can understand what the frontline staff has dealt with over the past year,” Swift said. Ballad’s COVID units have been overloaded for months, and healthcare staff has faced massive death rates up close and personal. 

Now, Swift said, far fewer patients are ending up in the ICU. Some COVID units are closing and being converted back into regular patient beds. 

“We went from 350 inpatients to around 100, and that has given our staff a little bit of room to breathe,” Swift said.

Ballad, like other health systems throughout the country, has seen virtually no incidence of the flu this year. This has also helped keep hospital occupancy under control.

“I’m thrilled to see it,” Swift said. Swift pointed to COVID mitigation measures as crucial to stifling the spread of influenza. “I think we know that flu is less contagious than COVID. By implementing the measures we did to contain COVID, flu did not really have an opportunity to spread,” she said. 

Swift added that nationally, more people were willing to get the flu vaccine this year, which also helped. All this evidence is a testament to the efficacy of basic infection prevention measures, she said. We can carry that lesson into the future to help prevent the spread of COVID and keep folks healthier in general. 

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Southwest Virginia Remains Vigilant 

The downward trend of COVID infections is a promising sign, Swift said, but she emphasized that Virginia is not out of the woods yet. 

“I think it’s really important for people to realize, we’re still at a very critical junction in this pandemic. Even though all the numbers are coming down…it’s not time to let up,” Swift said. 

Swift said Virginia public health officials continue to worry about emerging variants of COVID-19 and potential reinfection rates. 

She encouraged everyone to get vaccinated as soon as possible. 

Ballad Health resumed non-emergent and elective surgical procedures on Feb. 1. Non-COVID patients are now allowed two visitors, as well, Swift said. COVID positivity rates need to stay low in order for the hospital to continue with these expanded offerings. 

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