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Mask Up: Mask Mandate takes center stage

Health officials issue concern, urge precautions as regional COVID-19 cases rapidly increase

By Tamas Mondovics
Editor

In a recent press release Ballad Health officials stated that, “Thursday, July 9, marked a grim milestone for the Appalachian Highlands: the highest number of new coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases recorded in a single day.

The release added that with 94 new cases reported in 21 counties of Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia, officials with Ballad Health are warning community members that not only is COVID-19 continuing its spread, but the pandemic is on the brink of becoming much worse.

“The number of COVID-19 patients in our hospitals is rapidly increasing on a weekly basis,” said Dr. Clay Runnels, chief physician executive of Ballad Health. “The disease is spreading more rapidly than ever, and it poses a serious threat to our community. Each of us is at risk, and it’s up to each of us to take precautions to slow the disease.”

Runnels added, “If you’re clamoring for a return to normal, but not wearing a mask, practicing physical distancing or being hypervigilant about hand hygiene, you’re not helping our community reach that goal. In fact, by refusing to take sensible steps to protect yourself and others, you could be causing serious damage to you and those around you.”

Continuing in his close support of the direction coming from Tennessee Governor, Bill Lee, Johnson County Mayor Mike Taylor emphasized his stand on the issue of wearing masks within the County.

“I maintain close communication with our healthcare professionals and I will continue to monitor our daily COVID-19 case activity,” Taylor said. “As of today, I strongly encourage residents to wear masks especially in areas where social distancing is limited.   I do, however, trust the citizens of Johnson County to make the right decision regarding their health and the health of their families.”

Ballad health and  Runnels expressed further concern that, with the steep increase of local COVID-19 cases, Ballad Health’s hospitals and medical facilities could become overwhelmed, leading to overflowing intensive care units (ICUs) and supply shortages that have struck other hospitals and health systems in places such as Texas, Arizona, Florida and New York.

By the numbers, as of July 9, nearly 20 percent  of Ballad Health’s ventilators are in use, and the health system’s beds are at more than 75 percent capacity worrying  Ballad Health leaders that, as the year extends into flu season, the number of people in the Appalachian Highlands who need major healthcare interventions will outpace hospital units’ capacities and staffing levels.

“Unless major steps are taken now, by everyone, to slow COVID-19, we could be facing a situation in which we have to make serious decisions about how we deliver care, and if we’re going to be able to provide certain healthcare services for everyone who needs them,” Dr. Runnels said. “These kinds of difficult choices might have seemed far-fetched once upon a time, but as the COVID-19 curve climbs higher, that scenario becomes more and more real.”

An estimated 5-10 percent of people who contract COVID-19 are eventually hospitalized. COVID-19 hospitalizations within Ballad Health have ranged from pediatric patients to the elderly, the release sated.

“Cases are being found in travelers, college students, large businesses, large group gatherings, churches, athletes and restaurant workers, along with a major increase in unknown community exposure, as the level of the virus in our communities continues increasing,” said Jamie Swift, Ballad Health’s corporate director of infection prevention.

“The data is very, very real, Swift added. “I called more people to tell them they have COVID-19 on July 9 than I had any other day since the pandemic began. We also have more COVID-19 patients receiving care in our hospitals than at any other point in the pandemic.”

Ballad Health leaders also note some people with COVID-19 can remain completely asymptomatic, which can cause them to spread the illness to others without realizing it. Additionally, the virus can have a two-week incubation period, and many people who contract COVID-19 are sick for two weeks or more before being hospitalized, which means data often reflects infections that occur weeks beforehand, the release said.

“What you do now will affect the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations two weeks from now,” Swift said. “The virus is very much here, and ignoring the data and warnings will not help us return to normal – it will just push it farther and farther away.”

Infection prevention
measures encouraged by Ballad Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and
other leading health
organizations include:

•Avoiding touching your eyes, nose and mouth

•Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces daily, such as tables, doorknobs, phones and countertops

•Covering your coughs and sneezes

•Maintaining at least 6 feet of separation from people outside your household

•Monitoring your health daily, paying particular attention for fever, cough or shortness of breath

•Washing your hands often, or using a hand sanitizer that is at least 60 percent alcohol

•Wearing a cloth face covering at all times in public areas

•If you choose to travel, research your destination, assess the risk and consider quarantining upon your return.

“This is the time for everyone to heed warnings from health and infection
prevention experts,” Dr. Runnels said. “We can do
better in the Appalachian Highlands than other parts
of the country. It’s not too late to start wearing a mask and taking COVID-19 as the serious threat that it is. Your actions today could help save multiple lives – even your own.”

At Ballad Health, you are #SafeWithUs.

All Ballad Health facilities are taking crucial safety precautions, including enhanced physical distancing measures, increased infection control and new processes and systems to safeguard patients’ care journeys.

Anyone who is experiencing symptoms and believes they might have been exposed to COVID-19 is advised to call Ballad Health Nurse Connect at 833-822-5523.

For additional information regarding Ballad Health’s COVID-19 efforts, please visit www.balladhealth.org/COVID19.