Southwest Virginia a ‘cautionary tale’ as COVID-19 hospitalizations rise across the state

Southwest Virginia a ‘cautionary tale’ as COVID-19 hospitalizations rise across the state
Physicians with the Carilion Clinic in Roanoke, Virginia wear enhanced personal protective equipment inside the health system's facilities. (Source: Photo courtesy of the Carilion Clinic)

Over the past few days, Virginia has reached a grim milestone: more patients hospitalized for COVID-19 than at any other point in the pandemic.

Those numbers are rising across the state with increases reported in each of Virginia’s five health regions, according to data from the state Department of Health. But nowhere is the spike more acute than in the southwest, where the number of beds occupied by COVID-19 patients has soared from an average of 76 a day in late April to 361 as of Wednesday.

The same day, Ballad Health — one of the region’s largest hospital systems with locations in 29 counties across Southwest Virginia, Northeast Tennessee, Northwest North Carolina and Southeast Kentucky — announced it was suspending all elective surgeries for the next month starting Monday. System-wide, Ballad had 45 available beds as of Wednesday, only 13 or 14 of them ICU beds, Chief Operating Officer Eric Deaton said in a news briefing that afternoon.

The system has a refrigerated morgue truck parked outside its Johnson City hospital in neighboring Tennessee, added CEO Alan Levine. A second has been ordered for Kingsport, just a few miles away from the Virginia state line.

“We attempted to take every possible step to avoid postponing nonemergency procedures, but we find ourselves at a point where it’s necessary to preserve workforce and resources in order to meet the surge of COVID patients into our hospitals,” said Dr. Clay Runnels, the system’s chief physician executive.

The metrics in Southwest Virginia are worse than in many other areas of the state, driven at least partially by the lack of comprehensive mask requirements in neighboring Tennessee, Gov. Ralph Northam said in a later news conference on Wednesday. But as the number of patients across Virginia continues to rise — a trend that’s expected to continue in the weeks following Thanksgiving — state officials are worried that more health systems could become overwhelmed.

“No one else is close to where Ballad is right now, in terms of needing to implement the same procedures,” state Health Secretary Dr. Daniel Carey said in an interview after the briefing. “But it’s a cautionary tale to everyone.”

It’s not the first time during the now nine-month-old pandemic that officials have raised concerns over hospital capacity. In early April, Northam announced plans to convert three convention center sites across Virginia into field hospitals to accommodate a feared surge in patients. Those plans were put on hold later that month after statewide health trends indicated that health systems had sufficient bed capacity.

While state leaders are still considering all options for handling a potential spike in cases, Carey said that field hospitals generally don’t address the biggest concerns for health systems. Many of the supplemental facilities constructed in other areas of the country largely went unused, including the U.S.N.S. Comfort, a Naval ship sent from Norfolk to New York City to relieve the city’s beleaguered hospitals. The ship, which had 1,000 beds, departed in late March with the intention of treating non-COVID patients. It left a month later after treating less than 200 — approximately 70 percent of whom had the virus, according to the Navy Times.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.