Ballad Health urges caution in COVID-19 pandemic, emphasizes the continued risks

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. – More than three months ago, the first case of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) was diagnosed in the Appalachian Highlands.

Since then, state health department data shows that number has ballooned to 774 COVID-19 cases in this region – 483 in Tennessee and 291 in Virginia. Nearly 100 of those cases have been diagnosed since June 10, and four patients are currently hospitalized at Ballad Health hospitals.

“Even though much of the nation has reopened, and we’re all striving to move forward in our new normal, please know: The COVID-19 pandemic is not over, and being cautious and prevention-minded is still imperative,” said Alan Levine, Ballad Health’s chairman and chief executive officer.

“We are still in the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Plans for reopening our communities and economies were developed with input from top health experts and scientists, and they rely on people still wearing masks and continuing physical distancing. Choosing to disregard these steps not only opens up your own risk of contracting COVID-19, but it puts everyone around you at increased risk, as well.”

Levine further said caution is especially warranted now, during vacation season and as the Fourth of July holiday approaches. More than half of the new COVID-19 cases at Ballad Health have been related to travel, and popular vacation spots such as Myrtle Beach, Charleston and Florida are reporting enormous spikes in COVID-19 cases.

“If you choose to travel, I implore you to do so safely. Research where you are going to assess the COVID-19 risk, wear your mask and avoid large groups of people. And when you return, monitor yourself for symptoms for at least 14 days, and do everything possible to limit your exposure to others, especially high-risk individuals,” Levine said.

“Even if you’re staying local this season, wear your mask any time you’re in public, even if it’s not technically required. Forgoing a mask doesn’t make you brave or subversive – it makes you reckless and a risk to everyone’s health.”

Large gatherings, including family events, parties and community functions, have an inherently higher risk of COVID-19 transmission. Ballad Health leaders emphasize an increased need for masking, hand hygiene and physical distancing in these instances.

While Ballad Health has resumed many of its normal business functions, including permitting elective and non-emergent surgeries and allowing limited visitation, Levine and other health system leaders caution that if local COVID-19 cases continue to increase, restrictions might be put back in place to protect patients and team members.

“Since March, some aspects of our lives and businesses have changed irreversibly. Those changes might have been challenging to adapt to, but they’re not all bad,” Levine said.

Levine noted one example of positive change brought on by the pandemic is the availability and accelerated growth of telehealth services. Ballad Health has expanded its virtual health program, Connected Care, giving patients access to more than 500 primary care and specialty providers.

This rapid growth was made possible because of temporary changes in the regulation of telehealth, through Congress’ passage of the CARES Act and other commercial policy changes.

“It is vital the flexibility afforded by the CARES Act and other policy changes be made permanent so Ballad Health and health systems across the country can continue to offer this essential service,” Levine said. “I believe telehealth will unquestionably play a major role in the future of healthcare delivery, especially for rural health systems like ours, by expanding access to care for our rural and elderly patients at a lower cost.

“I want to sincerely thank all our doctors, nurses and team members who stepped up to quickly learn this new technology and helped make Connected Care such a success.”

In addition to Connected Care, Ballad Health launched a public service campaign, dubbed #SafeWithUs, on Sunday, June 7, which raises awareness about the importance of routine healthcare visits, as well as the assurance that it is absolutely safe to visit a doctor’s office or hospital.

Fear surrounding the pandemic, among other reasons, has led many patients to delay care or avoid it altogether. Ballad Health has seen its emergency department, inpatient/outpatient surgery and diagnostic imaging volumes drop by nearly 50% during the pandemic.

If some conditions are left untreated, people increase their risk of needing a major surgery or a lengthy hospital stay down the road. Worst of all, some conditions could lead to death without proper treatment.

“Chronic conditions, heart attacks and strokes do not take a break during a pandemic. I urge you to keep scheduled doctor’s appointments and reschedule any appointments that might have been canceled during the pandemic,” Levine said.

“I know the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard, and some aspects of our lives may never return to the way they were. But I believe, truly and wholeheartedly, we have the ability to come through this stronger – but only if we all come together.”

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.