A1 A1
Ballad Health official: region in "a really bad place" in COVID-19 pandemic

Forget about clusters. Go anywhere in public now without taking precautions against COVID-19, and you’re at risk of contracting the novel coronavirus that has killed 413 people in Ballad Health’s 21-county service area since March 1.

That was part of the message on Wednesday from the health system’s chief infection prevention officer and assistant vice president of infection prevention.

Her name is Jamie Swift, and she said the region faces a “dire situation” as it finds itself “in a really bad place in this pandemic.”

“We’re really in widespread community spread of COVID-19,” Swift said. “People continue to ask me, ‘Where is it coming from? Is it clusters? Is it this source or that?’ We’re past the point of that question. We are at the point in our community that if you go out, you’re at risk of contracting COVID-19 if you’re not taking the proper precautions. It is truly widespread at this point. It’s past time we adjust our behavior as a community.”

In its daily COVID-19 report on Wednesday, the Tennessee Department of Health reported 199 new cases and one new COVID-19 death in Northeast Tennessee, in Sullivan County, bringing the state’s tally of COVID-19 deaths in Sullivan County to 49.

But the Sullivan County Regional Health Department updated its own statistics late Tuesday and showed the county with 51 COVID-19 deaths. The disparity shows how state numbers sometimes lag local numbers, as daily statistics are submitted to Nashville, processed, and ultimately included in a statewide report.

Sullivan County, according to the state on Wednesday, had 846 active COVID-19 cases.

The Sullivan County Regional Health Department’s update late Tuesday showed the agency was monitoring 1,189 active cases.

Otherwise, the TDH reported the following numbers Wednesday for Northeast Tennessee’s eight counties:

• Sullivan County: 77 new cases, 3,923 total cases.

• Washington County: 48 new cases, 3,663 total cases with 53 deaths, and 652 active cases.

• Carter County: 32 new cases, 1,630 total cases with 34 deaths, and 214 active cases.

• Hawkins County: 13 new cases, 1,245 total cases with 25 deaths, and 163 active cases.

• Unicoi County: 12 new cases, 457 total cases with three deaths, and 113 active cases.

• Greene County: 10 new cases, 1,831 total cases with 54 deaths, and 317 active cases.

• Johnson County: five new cases, 1,171 total cases with seven deaths, and 93 active cases.

• Hancock County: two new cases, 123 total cases with three deaths, and eight active cases.

Statewide, 34 new COVID-19 deaths and 2,446 new COVID-19 cases were reported on Wednesday by the TDH.

Those numbers brought Tennessee’s pandemic totals to 3,241 deaths (3,067 confirmed as COVID-19 and 174 probable) and 254,220 cases (240,198 confirmed as COVID-19 and 14,022 probable). Of the 254,220 total, 224,822 were listed as “inactive/recovered.”

The numbers were based on 22,000 new test results statewide, compared to Tuesday, with a positive rate of 10.68%.

Sullivan County’s average positive rate over the last seven days: 18.4%.

Over the past 14 days, Sullivan County has averaged 76 new cases per day. In the 14 days prior, Sullivan County had averaged 39.4 cases per day.

According to Ballad Health’s daily COVID-19 Scorecard, the positive rate for the system’s 21-county service area over the past seven days was at 15.2% on Wednesday.

Church Hill's 'free clinic' seeing more patients, less funding thanks to COVID-19

CHURCH HILL — Earlier this year, Brett Hamm got sick, lost his job, lost his health insurance, and racked up a $30,000 bill after spending two weeks in the hospital.

He was told by the hospital that his monthly disability check was $22.12 above the threshold for charity eligibility, and now he’s facing the possibility of being sued.

His primary physician told him to try the Church Hill Medical Mission (CHMM).

Hamm told the Times News that advice saved his life and his home.

“I’ve got an artificial heart valve, and I’ve got what they call provoked seizures, so they put me on disability at my young age (of 57) and told me I could never work again,” Hamm said. “I’ve got disability, but you’ve got to wait two years after you get disability to get health insurance. If you know anything about the medical field, it is so expensive. It put me in a really bad bind. I don’t know what I would do if it was not for Dr. (David) Schilling and this facility.

“They helped me get all of my medication. They helped me get all of the tests I needed done. These girls basically bend over backwards to help you. If you need something, you call. And I don’t know how they do it, but they get it accomplished. I probably would have lost everything I’ve got. Probably would have to move in with family members. I don’t know what I would have done without Dr. Schilling and this clinic. He is phenomenal.”

Surpassed 2019 patient visits, prescription totals

The CHMM was formerly known as the Church Hill Free Clinic. It’s not exactly free anymore. It charges $10 per visit, but that includes all in-house exams and treatments, as well as any prescription drugs available on the premises.

For all of 2019, the CHMM had 553 patient office visits and filled 3,349 prescriptions. CHMM office manager Kathy Christian told the Times News on Tuesday that CHMM surpassed its 2019 totals in both patient visits and prescriptions in early October.

On Monday alone, the CHMM signed up 10 new patients.

Those increases can be attributed directly to the COVID-19 pandemic, along with a drastic reduction in fundraising.

“The Hawkins County Health Department isn’t taking new patients, so they’re referring them to us,” Christian said. “Providence (Medical Clinic of Kingsport) isn’t taking Hawkins County patients anymore, even if they’ve been there since they started. So Providence is referring to us, and the hospitals are referring to us.

“We’ve had an upswing in patients, but have lost funding because of COVID. We’ve lost so much funding and we’ve really had to scrounge.”

The CHMM’s two main fundraising events have been canceled due to the pandemic, including its annual 5K race/walk that raises $8,000 to $10,000, as well as the annual Singing in the Spring and auction event, which raises another $5,000 to $8,000.

“A need for increased financial resources”

Dr. Schilling, who co-founded the CHMM in 2000, noted that the clinic has been able to keep the doors open thanks to individual donations, grants, and various programs that help it acquire prescription drugs either for free or at a reduced cost.

“God has taken care of us and we’re able to keep on going with the medicine and taking care of patients,” Schilling said. “Like every place, we see a lot of patients with chronic diseases like diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Fortunately, I’m only aware of one of our patients who was diagnosed with COVID, and he was a young man and got over it fine.”

Schilling added, “But our volumes are increasing, and we’ve seen a need for increased financial resources. And of course we always need people’s prayers. The big thing about this clinic, aside from getting medical help here, they get spiritual help. The evening clinic we also have spiritual counseling and pray with the patients and talk with them about Jesus. It’s a medical mission.”

Anyone interested in making a donation can send it to: Church Hill Medical Mission, 401 Richmond St., Church Hill, TN 37642. For more information, call (423) 256-2408.

SW Va. adds 62 COVID-19 cases in October surge

Far Southwest Virginia accounted for more than 60 new COVID-19 cases, according to state health data released on Wednesday.

The Virginia Department of Health (www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus) reported Wednesday that the state had 1,345 new cases and 16 deaths in the prior 24 hours for pandemic totals of 176,754 cases and 3,616 deaths.

The LENOWISCO Health District added 62 cases for totals of 1,577 infections and 26 deaths during the pandemic. Scott County recorded 25 cases for 392 and six deaths. Wise County had 19 cases for 638 and 10 deaths.

Lee County saw 17 cases for 496 cases and 10 deaths. Norton added one case for 51 and no deaths.

One new outbreak was reported in the LENOWISCO district at an unspecified congregate setting, bring the total number of pandemic outbreaks to 29.

The statewide testing rate for people with nasal swab and antigen tests in Wednesday’s VDH report was 2,761,481 of 8.63 million residents, or 31.75%. For nasal swab testing only, 2,563,313 people have been tested to date, or 29.7%. In the LENOWISCO district, 19,808 of the region’s 86,471 residents have been tested via nasal swab sample for COVID-19, or 22.91%.

Pandemic-wide testing rates by locality were:

• Lee County, 6,005 of 23,423, or 25.64%

• Norton, 1,883 of 3,981, or 47.3%

• Wise County, 7,067 of 37,383, or 18.9%

• Scott County, 4,146 of 21,566, or 19.22%

Red Onion State Prison remained at 20 inmate cases and decreased from three to two active staff/contractor cases, according to the Virginia Department of Corrections COVID-19 webpage.

Wallens Ridge State Prison in Big Stone Gap remained at no inmate cases and five active staff/contractor cases. Wise Correctional Center near Coeburn held steady at 14 inmate cases while decreasing from nine to seven active staff cases.

The seven-day average rate of positive PCR test results in the LENOWISCO district in Wednesday’s report rose from 11.8% to 13.9%. The statewide positivity rate remained at 5%.

According to Wednesday’s VDH pandemic measures dashboard, cases in the far southwest region of Virginia — including the LENOWISCO Health District — were ranked as rising after a 37-day increase in cases. The far southwest region ranking for percent positivity of COVID-19 testing results remained increasing based on a 17-day increase in that measure.

All four school systems in the LENOWISCO district — Wise, Lee and Scott counties and Norton — were ranked as highest-risk based on the 14-day case incidence rate in the district. All four divisions were ranked highest-risk for percent change in seven-day case incidences.

Where to be tested

Do you think you might have COVID-19? Local health departments provide free testing.

The LENOWISCO Health Department, which covers Norton and Lee, Wise and Scott counties, posts regular updates on testing sites across the district and offers free COVID-19 tests at its county offices. Those seeking a test must call in advance for an appointment. Contact numbers for the county offices are:

• Lee County (Jonesville) — (276) 346-2011

• Scott County (Gate City) — (276) 386-1312

• Wise County and Norton (Wise) — (276) 328-8000

Additional testing and COVID-19 precaution information can be found at the LENOWISCO Health District’s Facebook page: www.facebook.com/Lenowisco

The Health Wagon will partner with the Virginia Department of Health to offer 17 sessions of free drive-thru testing at Food City in St. Paul through Dec. 31. Call (276) 328-8850 for an appointment.

In Southwest Virginia, online resources are available to help evaluate whether residents might be infected and where to get a COVID-19 test. The Virginia Department of Health’s COVIDCHECK (https://www.vdh.virginia.gov/coronavirus/covidcheck/) can walk a user through symptoms they may be experiencing and help direct them to their local health department office or other available testing sites.

Sullivan Gardens K-8 goes virtual because of COVID-19

KINGSPORT — A Sullivan County school has moved to all-virtual learning because of a spike in COVID-19 quarantines, becoming the second county school to make such a shift.

The other affected school sent only one grade level home.

The entire Sullivan Gardens K-8 operation moved to all virtual learning effective Tuesday and will continue that way through Nov. 6, with face-to-face students to return to in-person learning Nov. 9, Director of Schools David Cox said.

The move comes on the heels of Colonial Heights Middle School moving the entire sixth grade to all virtual learning. Cox said that would end Friday and students would return Nov. 2, barring any additional cases or exposure.

“Sullivan Gardens (K-8) is online through the sixth,” Cox said Wednesday afternoon. “We had more than half of the staff required to quarantine.”

Quarantines are to last 14 days and are for people exposed to a known COVID-19 case caused by the novel coronavirus. Isolation for at least 10 days is required for those who test positive.

All other Sullivan County schools and grade levels for face-to-face students are attending school in-person on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, with Wednesdays virtual for all grade levels to give time for deep cleaning and teachers to help students who are behind catch up and give challenges to those who need them.

Any change in that schedule would require a vote by the seven-member Board of Education, which voted 5-2 on Oct. 8 to keep the virtual Wednesdays rather than go back to in-person learning five days a week. Teachers bombarded the board with concerns about returning to in-person instruction five days per week.

Virtual students by choice are not attending in-person learning.

Cox said he will give the school board an update on the novel coronavirus situation in the school system at the BOE work session to start at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday in the Little Theater of Sullivan Central High School.

The next regularly scheduled voting meeting of the board is set for Central at 6:30 p.m. on Nov. 5, with a called meeting at 6 p.m. at that same location to be presented with the board’s annual self-evaluation.

Early voting for Nov. 3 election ends today in Tennessee

Today is the last day of early voting in Tennessee. Turnout statewide broke the record (set in 2016) earlier this week, according to a statement from Secretary of State Tre Hargett’s office. And early turnout in Sullivan County was on track to see its early turnout record broken as well, Sullivan County Administrator of Elections Jason Booher said.

Election Day is Nov. 3.

“The all-time record for voter turnout of 66,439 was set in the November 2016 presidential election,” Booher told the Times News on Tuesday. “We are on track to exceed the early voting turnout of November 2016.”

Booher noted that through Monday, more than 42,670 in-person and by-mail ballots had been cast.

He said voters are encouraged to cast their ballot during early voting for several reasons.

“We do not know what the weather will be, but it is likely voters will need to stand outside their assigned polling location as a result of social distancing,” Booher said. “Unfortunately, many voters do not update their address with the election commission when they move. It is a felony offense when a voter does not provide their current legal residence when voting. The process of changing an address on Election Day is not as efficient as it is during early voting. Unlike early voting, voters with an address change will likely be directed to a different polling location, and as a result the time required to cast a ballot is extended for everyone.”

Voters that choose to vote on Election Day must vote at their assigned Election Day polling location.

“Many voters who have voted during early voting in past elections or had a family member or friend tell them where they voted during early voting arrive at an early voting location only to be directed to their assigned Election Day polling location,” Booher said. “Voters are encouraged to review their registration status and Election Day polling location by using the voter lookup tool at www.scelect.org. All three of our early voting locations serve as Election Day polling locations. Unless these locations are the assigned Election Day polling location for a voter, they cannot vote there.”

Early voting locations for Sullivan County:

• Sullivan County Election Commission Office, 3258 Highway 126, Suite 103, Blountville

• Civic Auditorium, 1550 Fort Henry Drive, Kingsport

• Slater Community Center, 325 McDowell St., Bristol

Hours at all three early voting locations are: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Early voting locations for Hawkins County:

• Church Hill Rescue Squad, 9 a.m. to 8 p.m.

• Rogersville Courthouse, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Early voting locations for Washington County:

• The former ACE Hardware, 220 N. 2nd Ave., Jonesborough

• Princeton Arts Center, 2516 E. Oakland Ave., Johnson City

• Johnson City Fire Station 8, 106 Gray Commons Circle, Gray

Hours at all Washington County early voting locations are: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Statewide, a record-breaking 1,808,546 voters had cast their ballots for the Nov. 3 presidential election by the end of the day on Monday, according to Hargett’s office, which meant turnout surpassed the previous record set during the 2016 presidential election when 1,689,989 Tennesseans voted early or absentee by-mail.

“This election, Tennesseans are engaged and are taking advantage of the convenience of early voting,” Hargett said. “In the final days of early voting as well as on Election Day, Tennesseans can cast their votes in a clean, safe, and secure environment.”

While visiting the polls, Tennesseans are encouraged to wear a face covering and maintain a six-foot distance from poll officials and other voters.

For more information about early voting in Tennessee, go to GoVoteTN.com or call the Division of Elections toll-free at (877) 850-4959.

Shown here is the drawing that is featured on this year's Scott County Christmas ornament.