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Ballad anticipates increased fast COVID-19 testing capacity, tightens visitor restrictions

Mike Still • Apr 8, 2020 at 8:30 AM

JOHNSON CITY — Ballad Health officials expect a growing ability to test patients quickly for COVID-19 infection by next week.

With increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases, visitors to Ballad facilities starting Wednesday will also see tighter restrictions on who can enter those facilities.

Ballad Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton said Tuesday that the system on the Tennessee side can handle up to 50 fast-turnaround tests for the disease daily.

“That’s 50 more a day more than a week ago,” Deaton said.

A new test analyzer unit is arriving and should push that rate to 400 tests per day by next week, he added.

More than 1,000 Ballad patients have been tested as of Tuesday, Deaton said, and there are 21 testing sites within the Ballad network. Testing is being done within guidelines for symptoms or exposure to patients with symptoms.

According to the Tennessee Department of Health’s COVID-19 tracking website, 26 patients had tested positive for COVID-19 in Sullivan County by Tuesday, with 16 in Hawkins County and 27 in Washington County.

Deaton said the improved testing helps the system manage the availability of personal protective equipment for doctors, nurses and other health care workers. Some testing requires a three-to-four-day turnaround for results, he said, and that means those patients have to be treated as if infected until results return.

Deaton said that Ballad hospitals and facilities starting Wednesday will also implement more stringent visitation rules and screening for visitors and staff. Because of increasing numbers of cases and indications of community spread of the disease, no visitors will be allowed in Ballad emergency rooms or outpatient facilities such as the cancer center or surgical center.

Exceptions may be made for a guest if they are needed to assist a patient, Deaton said, but that will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Visitors to Niswonger Children’s Hospital will also be restricted to a parent or guardian per each neonatal intensive care unit room or pediatric inpatient room.

Also starting Wednesday, visitors and staff entering Ballad facilities will be screened for fever, Deaton said. Any medical personnel showing a fever of 100 degrees or higher will be sent home and retested in 72 hours. Any visitors with a fever in the same range will be sent home and advised to monitor themselves for symptoms.

Jamie Swift, Ballad’s corporate director for infection prevention, said Ballad has 13 inpatient COVID-19 cases in various facilities as well as a 200-bed capacity for cases when a surge in infection rates happens. Patients testing positive have ranged in age from a 6-week-old to a 90-year-old.

“We know, with those age ranges, it’s across the board,” Swift said. “It truly is community spread.”

Ballad CEO Alan Levine, asked about the system’s Virginia dedicated COVID-19 treatment site at Lonesome Pine Hospital in Big Stone Gap, said one COVID-19 patient is now there. Lonesome Pine has a current 30-bed capacity for additional patients, he added.

Levine said Ballad emergency departments are implementing Code Airway, a communication procedure, with the region’s emergency medical service responders. He said Code-COVID Airway allows EMS crews to advise emergency rooms if a patient is showing COVID-19 symptoms before arrival. That allows ER teams to set up with necessary personal protective equipment before the patient arrives.

Levine also mentioned Ballad Greeneville Community Hospital Chief Medical Officer Dr. Daniel Lewis, who was hospitalized last week after testing positive for the virus.

“We’re optimistic he’ll be OK,” Levine said.

Swift recommended what state and federal health officials have been advocating: staying at home, social distancing and wearing a cloth face covering or mask outside the home.

Ballad Chief Nursing Executive Lisa Smithgall said Ballad Health’s website contains examples for people wanting to make their own masks. Swift cautioned that cloth masks work mainly to protect others from the wearer’s own droplets from coughing or sneezing and not from droplets from others.

Swift said masks should fit over the nose, mouth and under the chin. Wearers should not touch their face while using a mask, but should remove them by their earpiece or strap and place them in the wash before washing their hands or using sanitizer.

Levine said Ballad’s nursing departments are also working on ways to better communicate with relatives of COVID-19 patients about their condition and status during treatment.

While protective protocols and other pressures can cut down on interaction between relatives and medical teams, Levine said Smithgall is working with nurses on ways to use technology to keep those relatives informed.

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