Ballad Health said the pace is accelerating so rapidly for people becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 that if it goes unchecked, the health system will be overwhelmed.
The warning came on the same day 30,000 fans were expected to pass through turnstiles at Bristol Motor Speedway for NASCAR’s All-Star Race.
Until late June, cases of COVID-19 in Bristol and much of Virginia’s rural coalfields and in Tennessee’s Tri-Cities area were few, and under control. But just as in the Roanoke and Alleghany Health Districts, vacationers brought the virus home to Ballad’s service area.
Ballad has since seen an overwhelming majority of its cases now tied to spread in its communities. Hospital admissions shot up from a handful at the beginning of the month to 60 on Wednesday. More troublesome is that the rate of admissions is doubling every few days.
“There is really no reason to think this continued growth in cases is going to stop anytime soon unless we, as the citizens of this region, start to think about how we can protect each other and take precautions and wear a mask,” Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton said during a news conference Wednesday.
Ballad has 100 COVID-19 beds, with just 40 open and cases climbing. It is shifting staff to its three larger hospitals in Bristol, Johnson City and Kingsport, Tennessee, and plans to add another 50 beds to care for patients with the virus.
Deaton shared projections that show if admissions continue at the same pace, within weeks there will be more sick people than the ability to care for them.
He said they are hoping to avoid that by calling on all to wear face coverings, keep their distance and wash their hands.
Deaton said Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order requiring people to wear masks in public spaces is helping in Virginia. Tennessee is not under a similar order. Ballad on Monday wrote to all the mayors in its service area asking them to enact local mandates. Deaton thanked those who had.
To the others, he asked them to please do so and help protect their residents, and he said the health system will be overwhelmed once flu season arrives.
Locally, Carilion Clinic and LewisGale Medical Center are also seeing an increase in COVID-19 hospital admissions. And the patients are younger than when the pandemic first arrived in the Roanoke Valley.
LewisGale spokeswoman Nancy May said the hospital has cared for 12 to 14 COVID-19 inpatients each day since early July in Salem, with one to three new ones coming in every day. About half of the inpatients are in their 40s and 50s, a downward departure from spring, when nearly all inpatients were older than 60.
At Carilion, Dr. Anthony Baffoe-Bonnie,medical director of infectious diseases, said most of the recent admissions have been of otherwise healthy people between 19 and 44 years old. But he expects that will shift in the coming weeks as the disease spreads.
“What other places have seen is the younger people get sick first because they are the guys who are mobile, moving around, having fun,” he said. Some have no symptoms or mild symptoms, and then they are around their parents or other older people.
Right now, Carilion is admitting one or two COVID-19 patients daily and still has capacity.
“I don’t want us to ever have that conversation of capacity because I want us to stop this in the community. Because it just takes one nursing home or two nursing homes and one or two people who are young to infect a nursing home to bring half of the nursing home into the hospital,” he said. “So one day you have capacity, and the next day you have lots of people in the hospital.”
Baffoe-Bonnie said people need to have a sense of urgency that they can limit the spread.
“I don’t know whether this sounds cheesy, but I’ll say it anyway: Generations at different times are called up to do different things,” he said. “COVID’s call is just wear your mask, don’t go to crowded areas, don’t go to bars. ... That’s our call for our generation, especially the young. I think it’s a sacrifice you can make for the generation that went to Vietnam and Korea who are now in nursing homes.”