Southwest Virginia Has A COVID-19 Problem, Ballad Officials Warn

By Amie Knowles

April 15, 2021

Leaders at Ballad Health revealed an increase in the COVID cases for Southwest Virginia.

WISE – Ballad Health’s Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton took the podium Wednesday for the first press briefing in two months. The reason came as a grim reminder: COVID-19 is still in Southwest Virginia.

For the first time since February, COVID-19 patients at local hospitals rose above 100 last week. Unfortunately, those numbers haven’t dropped since.

Deaton gave the breakdown of Wednesday’s numbers. As of 11 a.m., there were 107 COVID patients in-house. There were as many admissions as discharges. A total of 27 patients were in the intensive care unit and 14 of those individuals were on ventilators.

He also noted that the average age of COVID inpatients dropped from 70 to 58 years of age. The average death age also decreased from 74.8 in 2020 to 68.9 in the past six weeks. Deaton also mentioned that patients as young as 23 years old are in the hospital and on ventilators.

As the pandemic presented spikes, Ballad Health gave an honest view on how a large surge could impact the area.

A Surge in Southwest Virginia

“Simply put, we really cannot take another surge like we’ve seen in the past,” Deaton said. “Our health system was really strained before. And we are very concerned that we cannot sustain another strain if we continue to [see] numbers like we did before.”

Deaton noted that the staff were close to burnout and were near their breaking point. However, just as team members started recovering from the last surge, the data revealed a rise in case numbers.

During the last week of February and first week of March, the Appalachian Highlands region experienced 897 COVID cases. As of last week, the area saw an approximately 60% increase from the early March numbers, totaling 1,443 cases.

Jamie Swift, Ballad Health’s Chief Infection Prevention Officer, revealed that 100 patients are now in the healthcare system’s Safe at Home program, up from 30 earlier in the pandemic.

In addition to the patients from the community with the virus, Ballad Health also has about 50 team members currently quarantining. Those staff members either tested positive or showed symptoms of the virus.

If the surge continues, healthcare providers could face a difficult decision. Last year, hospitals cancelled or postponed all elective surgeries. That could happen again, just as most facilities in the region caught up on their backlog.

“If we have to pull back surgery again, that will just set us back again. And really needed surgeries will have to be deferred, as we saw before,” Deaton said. “So I guess in short, another surge could really cripple the healthcare system across the region.”

Patients experiencing difficulty with the aftermath of the virus may receive treatment from the Center for Post-COVID Care.

“This is an innovative approach to recovery from COVID-19 long haul symptoms,” said Ballad Health’s Chief Physician Executive Dr. Clay Runnels.

Herd Immunity for the Highlands

The Appalachian Highlands region still has a ways to go to reach herd immunity.

Currently, 30.1% of residents received at least one dose of the vaccine. Those fully vaccinated hit 21.2%. The region has approximately 195,000 fully vaccinated individuals.

“We’re pleased with the progress, but we are far from over,” Swift said. “We have a long road ahead of us to continue this vaccination effort.”

Deaton further expressed concern over the potential of a more aggressive COVID strain ravaging the area.

“We still need more and more people vaccinated across the region to really slow down the spread of COVID-19,” Deaton said.

Until then, healthcare providers urge community members to take precautions. Those guidelines include adopting frequent, quality hand washing habits, social distancing and wearing face coverings.

“We’re still asking people to do those things appropriately,” Deaton said. “And most importantly, if you get a chance to take a vaccine – regardless of whether it’s the Moderna or the Pfizer vaccine – at this point we would ask that you do that whenever you have the opportunity to do that.”

In addition to vaccination, there’s another way to slow the spread. And that’s through testing when ill. For those experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, Swift asked that they schedule a COVID test.

“We’re seeing a lot of people who may choose not to be tested who may attribute their symptoms to other things, such as seasonal allergies,” Swift said. “I just implore you, if you have any symptoms really right now while we know we have this increased transmission in our community, really go be tested.”

Vaccination Appointments For Southwest Virginia

Vaccination clinics across the region have available appointments nearly every day.

“We’ve also extended hours into the evening to make these appointment accessible and easy,” Swift said. “If you call today, if you want a next-day appointment, I can almost guarantee that at all of our community vaccination sites.”

Some vaccination centers remain open until 8 p.m. That way, working adults, students 16 and over and other individuals with conflicting daytime schedules have vaccination opportunities.

Swift also addressed the pause in using the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

“This, of course, can be a concern for some people,” Swift said. “It’s also a testament to the strong evaluation processes and monitoring processes that the FDA and the CDC have put in place.”

Like other vaccination centers across Virginia and Tennessee, Ballad will not utilize Johnson & Johnson vaccines at the present time.

Amie Knowles reports for Dogwood. You can reach her at [email protected]

  • Amie Knowles

    Amie is Dogwood's community editor. She has been in journalism for several years, winning multiple awards from the Virginia Press Association for news and features content. A lifelong Virginia resident, her work has appeared in the Martinsville Bulletin, Danville Register & Bee and NWNC Magazine.

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