More than 500 Ballad employees took time off work Thursday as omicron sweeps the region | Latest titles

More than 570 Ballad Health System employees tested positive for COVID-19 and missed work Thursday amid a record spike in new cases in northeast Tennessee and southwest Virginia.

About 8,100 new cases have been diagnosed in recent days – the largest increase since the start of the pandemic in 2020. Powered by the omicron variant, Ballad was treating 294 hospitalized patients and 227 others treated through its Safe at Home telehealth program, according to Dr. Clay Runnels, Ballad’s chief medical officer.

“We have a significant number of patients in hospital but, at the same stage with delta, we have a significantly lower number of hospitalizations. We have 294 in the hospital and that number has remained relatively at 290 to 310 for the past few days,” Runnels said. “We expect it to reach 325, potentially 350. We are watching this carefully, but it looks somewhat different from the delta surge in late summer and early fall.”

At one point during the delta variant’s first surge in September, Ballad had more than 400 hospitalized patients, but the situation is now precarious as many frontline workers are absent.

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“This is straining hospitals because, as in other areas where omicron has become the dominant variant, it affects so many healthcare workers that we are setting records for the number of members of the team who are out and unable to work,” Runnels said. “We have fewer patients, but we have fewer people to look after them on a day-to-day basis. That’s the real problem. From a stress perspective in the hospital, it’s probably as bad as it’s ever been with any of our flare-ups because of how many team members we see continue to be affected.

Asked how many people have been vaccinated, Runnels said he didn’t have exact numbers, but a “significant number of those vaccinated have mild illness”.

In addition to the large number of new cases, Runnels said the other striking aspect is how quickly cases have increased due to the presence of omicron.

More than 5,400 new cases were diagnosed from Jan. 3-8 in Tennessee’s northeast 10-county area. This represents a 216% increase from the last week of December and the total represents about 80% of the 6,855 total cases diagnosed during the entire month of December, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

New cases also rose 215% in southwestern Virginia, which reported more than 2,600 new cases between Jan. 7 and Jan. 13. That total equates to about 70% of the 3,800 new cases diagnosed during the entire month of December, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

“If you look at the increase in cases, we have never seen a total increase in the rate of positive cases like we did with this one; not even with delta,” Runnels said. “Delta took twice as long to come up with those kinds of weekly numbers. Omicron is extremely contagious – 1.5 to twice as contagious as the delta variant. It’s still quite early because we’re quite early in the omicron push, but we don’t see the severity of the disease at this stage requiring high levels of hospitalization. It behaves much as we expected, so far.

During the Jan. 3-8 period, Sullivan County reported 1,560 new cases, about three times its weekly average in December. Sullivan added an average of 223 new cases per day during the period, while neighboring Washington County reported 1,252 new cases or 179 new cases per day.

There are currently about 8,650 active cases in northeast Tennessee, including about 2,400 in Sullivan County, according to TDH.

In southwestern Virginia, the city of Bristol reported 204 new cases over the past week, almost as many as were reported during December. Washington County in Virginia has 529 new cases and Wise County has more than 300.

The region’s seven-day test positivity average is nearly 30%. The CDC reported Sullivan’s rate was 41.4% while much of southwestern Virginia is in the mid to upper 20% range. | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC |

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