Johnson City, Tenn. (WJHL) – In the past two weeks, hospitalizations for COVID-19 have increased rapidly, after a long period of steady growth, and the number of seriously ill COVID-19 patients has increased sharply.
Ballad Health Chief Infection Prevention Officer Jamie Swift said the BA5 variant of the virus is now the dominant strain and is highly contagious. While many cases are mild or even asymptomatic, high numbers of hospitalizations and ICU rates have risen to their highest levels since mid-March, as Omicron nears its end.
“I would definitely say we’re excited,” Swift said. While ballad testing centers are seeing 200-300 people a day compared to 20-30 a few months ago, many people are just testing at home.
“We know that the current number of positive tests is much higher than reported,” Swift said.
At the disease level, there has been a 44% increase in COVID inpatient registrations across all Ballada hospitals in the last 12 days. As of Wednesday, 124 people were hospitalized with COVID, up from 86 on July 15.
“Over the last two weeks, we’ve really started to see it increase to 100, and I think we had 132 patients yesterday,” Swift said.
A fifth of these patients were in intensive care units (ICU) on Wednesday. According to Swift, all of those 25 COVID ICU patients were treated at this level because of their COVID symptoms, not because of any other illness or disease associated with COVID.
“Ventilator and ICU patients appear to be controlled by COVID at this point,” he said.
Wednesday’s 25 ICU patients, along with the 26 reported on Tuesday, are the two highest figures of the month. Ballada hospitals averaged 11.5 ICU patients per day on July 1, but since July 14, that has jumped to an average of 17.2.
The number of patients on ventilators also rose sharply, nearly tripling from 2.2 in the first half of the month to 6.2 since July 14. There have been 10 patients on ventilators for the last two days.
“We’re seeing a lot of mild cases, but we continue to have severe disease and death,” Swift said.
Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) COVID data shows that from the beginning of July through July 23, seven counties in Northeast Tennessee reported 20 new COVID deaths. Including eight in Sullivan County and three each in Greene, Johnson and Washington counties.
BA5 is the most contagious strain, but clusters often result in four or five new cases, sometimes more than just one previous case. Symptoms are similar to the previous options, usually cough, fever, fatigue, muscle aches and sore throat.
The spread of the virus is also affecting the staff at Ballada. The system has returned to “contingency staffing,” which allows people without symptoms, wearing a mask and returning to work five days after testing positive under other protocols.
Coupled with staffing shortages and an influx of patients with COVID-19 — an average of about 20 a day for the past week, plus — it creates “transfer” problems, Swift said.
“Waiting times (in emergency departments) are longer now. We are keeping patients longer in the AEB.”
Although people are tired of hearing it, Swift said the current level of prevalence makes indoor masks a “discussion,” especially as schools go back in session. He said most of the region is in the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) medium or high community prevalence areas, which recommend covered masks.
“Obviously, that discussion can happen as a school system, but also as parents and kids,” Swift said. “Really think about the risk and the risks to your family and reconsider those masks.”
Swift also noted that all school-age children are now eligible for the vaccine, saying it’s a good way to protect them.