Tri-Cities mayors, health officials: Area at 'tipping point' in COVID-19 battle

J. H. Osborne • Mar 26, 2020 at 9:30 AM

BLOUNTVILLE — The relatively small numbers of confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the region are no reason to ease up on basic steps that can prevent its spread, local health and government officials said Wednesday. In fact, due to spring break and other travelers returning to the region, it’s a critical time for slowing the spread.

“We are a tipping point,” Ballad Health President and CEO Alan Levine said. “We’re at a tipping point where we can begin to see community spread. We’re going to either contain it, or we’re going to see it accelerate.”

Community spread

“Community spread” is the term used to indicate the virus is being transmitted person-to-person, locally — rather than being detected in a person who has traveled outside the region. Community spread is typically followed by a spike in cases. Sullivan County Regional Health Department Medical Director Dr. Stephen May said that each confirmed infection potentially produces three more infections, which each can mean another three and so on.


Kingsport Mayor Pat Shull said it is inevitable that there will be an increase in cases in Sullivan County, which as of Wednesday afternoon had two confirmed cases that tested positive.


To date, local health agencies can’t adequately test the population, Sullivan County Regional Health Department Director Gary Mayes said.

“There are many things we don’t know,” Mayes said, including “the scope of the disease.”

He added, “We simply do not have the capacity, the supplies and the equipment” to test the region’s population.

Levine said more than 9,000 calls had come in to Ballad’s hotline, and after screening, more than 200 callers were tested and a “handful” had tested positive. Levine said by the end of the week Ballad might be able to start real-time testing at a rate of 50 tests per day, growing to a rate of 400 per day within two weeks.

May said there are multiple agencies offering tests to patients who’ve been prescreened and meet the criteria for being tested, and the turnaround time for results varies. Once they results are back, it might take 24-48 hours to get new cases entered into the state database, May said.

Levine, Shull and Mayes were among speakers at a press conference hosted at the Sullivan County Regional Health Department at the request of Sullivan County Mayor Richard Venable,  Shull, Bristol, Tenn., Mayor Margaret Feierabend, and Johnson City Mayor Jenny Brock. Also included was Washington County-Johnson City Health Department Director Christen Minnick.

Don’t travel

It was Levine who first mentioned the connection between a potential rise in confirmed cases and the recent return to the region of people who went on spring break or other trips. Officials urged all residents not to travel outside our eight-county region. Later in the day, in a called teleconference meeting of the Sullivan County Commission, travel to Knoxville, Asheville, N.C., and Christiansburg, Va., was singled out as being inadvisable.

If you do travel outside the area, Mayes said at the press conference, “please isolate yourself for 14 days” when you return.

In that later meeting, May said the latest numbers from the Tennessee Department of Health showed more than 11,000 tests have been performed across the Volunteer State and 784 resulted in confirmed cases (53 required hospitalization, and three died). The 784 was an increase from 661 on Tuesday and included two cases in Sullivan County, 14 cases for the eight-county Northeast Tennessee area, and 20 cases in Knoxville. May said three cases had been confirmed in Southwest Virginia.

Not widespread here yet

“We don’t have widespread COVID in the Tri-Cities, yet,” Mayes said, noting figures from some areas of the nation are disconcerting. “And we don’t need that in the Tri-Cities.”

Mayes said the group felt the press conference was necessary to make clear to the public that social distancing, staying home as much as possible, and remaining diligent about washing your hands continue to be urgent needs to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and protect the community. Mayes, Shull and others said a major concern is protecting local healthcare workers and facilities.

Screening required

To gain entry to the press conference, individuals had to answer questions about recent travel and have their temperature taken. That’s a basic screening protocol already being used by some businesses and governmental offices.

“This in an extraordinary time in our county’s history,” Venable said. “I’m heartened by the cooperation of the public in adhering to the directives issued by the governor. They remain as important today.”

Venable said there are two cases in Sullivan County “and if we can keep that number low, we won’t overwhelm our medical resources.”

“This time is unreal for all of us,” Feierabend, participating by telephone and video-conferencing, said. “No one has experienced anything to this extent. We’ll find our way. And though the path is far from clear, we’re doing our best to figure out the best way forward. And to do that we need everyone’s help to continue.”

Feierabend urged the public to “take seriously the social distancing advice we have been given by staying home as much as your needs allow you to do,” and said a common post making the rounds on social media should be heeded: “Act like you are already infected. If we act that way, we can slow the spread. Unless you absolutely need to go out, stay home.”

“We are in unprecedented times,” Brock said, participating by telephone. “Most important, make every decision of your day to protect your family.”

Brock urged businesses that remain open to assure that social distancing is practiced by all on their premises and to “protect your employees and your customers.”

“Let’s all commit to stop the spread,” Brock said. “The best way to do that is to stay home.”

“Nothing burger?”

 Asked how he’d respond to members of the public who are skeptical about the precautions being taken — those who think this is all just a “nothing burger” — Venable said he and the others hope the situation proves to have been a “nothing burger,” using the phrase of the reporter who posed the question.

Levine said he empathizes with those tiring of staying at home and especially with those who have lost jobs and are wondering when this will end and how bad it will leave them, the region and the nation, financially. He said he and all those gathered want to make sure those people realize that they understand their worries and fears.

“The fastest way for it to end is if we stop the spread of this thing, or at least slow the spread,” Levine said. “I don’t know if we can stop it until we have a vaccine. You don’t want to look back and say ‘Why didn’t we do what we should have?’ You want to look back and say, ‘people think that we overreacted’ because few people died. And so, the steps we take now, which seem painful, if you look back three months from now and say we had very few cases and very few people died ... I would call that a success. It’s hard for people to hear that right now because they’re going through a different type of pain.”

Need help?

May recommended www.tn.gov/health for more information online, and the Sullivan County Regional Health Department has registered nurses taking calls during business hours at (423) 279-2777. Shull said United Way of Kingsport is offering tips for those unable to get out to get groceries (https://www.uwaykpt.org/).

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