Health system halting elective procedures amid virus surge

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — A health system serving a swath of the central Appalachian mountains said Wednesday it will halt nonemergency elective procedures due to surging cases of COVID-19 and capacity concerns at its Virginia and Tennessee hospitals.

Ballad Health officials announced the change, which will take effect Monday and last for at least 30 days, at a news conference where they again implored community members to follow basic public health guidelines such as mask wearing and social distancing.

“The way we’re seeing people act in the community, the way we’re seeing people attend large gatherings, we can expect to see the numbers continuing to rise higher and higher. So I’m pleading with you, please change your behavior if you haven't yet,” said Eric Deaton, Ballad's chief operating officer.

Gov. Ralph Northam said at a separate news conference Wednesday that health officials believe Tennessee’s lack of a mask mandate and other restrictions has helped increase the virus's spread in neighboring southwest Virginia communities.

Ballad officials said pausing the surgeries — including those previously scheduled — was a difficult decision that will impact patients' quality of life and the system's finances. But they said it was necessary to free up staff to provide bedside care instead. They said there were no plans to furlough any staff.

The health system has also acquired a refrigerated morgue truck at its hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee, and has ordered a second one for a hospital in nearby Kingsport, Ballad President and CEO Alan Levine said.

Northam raised the specter of morgue trucks last month while offering an emotional response when asked why he imposed new restrictions around the state as the number of new cases continued to rise in Virginia and around the country.

On Wednesday, the governor said “all options are on the table” when it comes to adding new restrictions, and he criticized Virginians who are ignoring social distancing measures.

“It’s just selfish. Rights are important, but we also need to emphasize responsibility,” Northam said.

Northam, a doctor, also said at his news conference that the state is hoping to get its first batch of a coronavirus vaccine in the coming weeks. Early doses will be prioritized for health care workers, nursing home residents and others but it will take several months before there are enough doses for the general public.

Virginia has reported more than 242,000 cases of COVID-19 since the pandemic began and the virus has been responsible for at least 4,113 deaths in the state.

Ballad’s seven-day percent positivity rate in the areas of southwest Virginia and northeast Tennessee it serves reached a record high of 20% on Wednesday, according to data the system released.

Deaton said that rate is among the highest in the nation and is worse than either Virginia's or Tennessee's statewide rate.

"The spread of COVID-19 is not under control in our area. The direction that we're heading with our numbers is not sustainable," he said.

The system had about 13 or 14 available ICU beds as of Wednesday, he said.

Ballad officials said one of the most frustrating things for its nurses is knowing that some people continue to compare COVID-19 to the flu or the common cold and do not believe them when they talk about how serious and deadly the virus can be.

“When you’re a nurse and you see this with your own eyes and you get into the car and you hear people on national talk radio or on television dismissing these facts as if they’re not real, it’s disheartening to a nurse who has to get up the next day and come back and do it all over again,” Levine said.

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Associated Press writers Alan Suderman and Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.