Ballad Health provided a regional update, showing a downtrend in COVID cases.

WISE – The COVID-19 numbers keep dropping in Southwest Virginia and that’s a good thing. Eric Deaton, Ballad Health’s chief operating officer, took to the podium Wednesday to explain what’s changed in the last week.

COVID cases and severity levels in Southwest Virginia and the Appalachian Highlands region dropped over the past seven days. Last Wednesday, the region’s percent positivity rate was 10.7%. This week, the percent positivity rate topped out at 8.5%. That’s much closer to the state averages in Virginia and Tennessee, respectively averaging 5.4% and 5.6%. Deaton noted that the goal is to get to a 5% positivity rate.

Patients hospitalized with COVID in the region also dropped from 122 last week to 110 this week. Those in intensive case decreased by two patients, down from 30 last week to 28 this week. The number of patients on ventilators also decreased, down from 22 last week to 19 this week.

“Although these numbers are looking much better, again, having 100 people in the hospital [with] COVID-19 is still impactful to our system and obviously to them personally,” Deaton said. “So we want to continue to stress the need for vaccines.”

Deaton also encouraged following other safety measures adopted throughout the pandemic. They included continued social distancing practices and thorough hand washing methods.

Not Out of the Woods

While the physical numbers of hospitalizations trended downward, some percentages ticked upward.

“We are seeing that [of] the patients that are in the hospital, we have a higher number of people in ICU as a percentage of total patients,” Deaton said. “We’re also seeing that the patients that are in the hospital are younger than they have been in the past.”

Percentages for COVID patients on ventilators also rose.

“So we’re seeing younger people in the hospital. We’re seeing sicker patients in the hospital and more on ventilators in ICU,” Deaton said. “The, average age for the person in the hospital today has dropped from 65 years of age now to 60 years of age.”

Vaccines Lead to Victory

Leaders at Ballad Health continued stressing the importance of getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

“We’re seeing that the vaccine has worked effectively for people across our region,” Deaton said. “So really the best defense is to continue to take the vaccine or get the vaccine if it’s possible.”

Jamie Swift, Ballad Health’s chief infection prevention officer, further expressed the importance of the vaccine. She noted that Ballad Health provided over 42,000 first doses and approximately 40,000 second doses. Along with Ballad’s regional contribution, vaccine partners across the Appalachian Highlands vaccinated an approximate total of 264,000 people.

“While I celebrate every single vaccine dose, it’s a reminder that this is not enough,” Swift said.

She noted that vaccination centers are open almost every day. All Ballad Health vaccination sites currently accept both walk-in and scheduled COVID-19 vaccination appointments for individuals 16 and older.

“So if scheduling’s an issue, you can just walk right in and we’ll get you taken care of,” Swift said.

Swift also reminded folks that the shot is free of charge, safe and effective.

Addressing Vaccine Hesitancy

Approaching six months into the vaccine rollout, some people still have skepticism about the shot. Swift encouraged talking with a trusted individual about the vaccine.

“I would just ask if you’re still hesitant about the vaccine, please seek out reliable and reputable information,” Swift said. “Talk to a faith leader, a friend, a medical provider, a trusted resource, you know, your physician at your physician’s office. Whoever it is, take time to seek out their opinion, understand the science and really base your decision on the science of the vaccine.”

She noted that the COVID vaccines underwent rigorous safety protocols.

“None of us would stand up here and recommend it and encourage it if we hadn’t already made that step and made that step for our families as well,” Swift said.

Even with the vaccines in place and readily available, Deaton expected hospitals to still treat COVID patients in the coming future. That’s because of vaccine hesitancy or vaccine refusal.

“It’s just because people, not everyone’s going to take the vaccine,” Deaton said. “We’re going to continue having disease and infections in the region. So we expect to have hospitalizations go on for maybe even another year.”

Amie Knowles reports for The Dogwood. You can reach her at amie@couriernewsroom.com