Task Force discusses status of regional healthcare virus response

A specimen is secured at a drive-thru coronavirus testing site at South Mountain Community College, Thursday, July 9, 2020, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

A total of 15 people were in critical care at Morristown-Hamblen Hamblen Healthcare Systems Thursday afternoon from COVID-19 as the hospital finds itself easing into surge levels and on the brink of overcapacity, according to members of the Hamblen County COVID-19 Task Force.

“We are getting in the higher territory of ventilators,” said Aundrea Mills, chief nursing officer of MHHS.

The comments came as the Hamblen County COVID-19 Task Force held a Zoom meeting to discuss the most recent development of the spread of coronavirus in the county.

Mills told task force members at first there were 14 people in critical care, but during the meeting was alerted that a fifteenth person had been moved to the intensive care unit. During the meeting, hospital officials also painted a stark reality. COVID-19 is slowly starting to tax the hospital, along with doctors, nurses and staff members treating patients.

At one point, Mills showed a photo of a patient on a ventilator surrounded by hospital staff, which appeared similar to photos from New York City where the virus surged in April and May and Houston where the virus is surging now.

The difference is that the photo was taken in Morristown.

Mills told the task force that the hospital has not implemented its surge plan, but that could happen and it’s worrisome.

“What number would worry you?” asked David Purkey, former commissioner of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

Mills said she had no number that would define what would worry her. She said if the surge plan is implemented it would be an instant red flag.

“I worry about it daily,” she said.

Gordon Lintz, president and CEO of MHHS, reported that the hospital currently has as many critical care patients as Fort Sanders Hospital in Knoxville and one more case than Parkwest Medical Center.

The task force met just a day after Hamblen County Mayor Bill Brittain announced he would not implement a mask mandate and instead said he would encourage those in the county to wear masks and also shop at places that implement guidelines handed down by Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee.

Hamblen County has been designated as a hotspot by the state and cases continue to spike.

The county has 218 active cases and has had 453 people test positive since the start of the pandemic, state records show. A total of 204 people have recovered. There have been a total of four deaths reported.

Health officials said there are a total of 15.57 cases per day now testing positive in Hamblen County with COVID-19.

Sherrie Montgomery, director of Hamblen County Health Department, said the health department would hold a drive through testing events on Tuesday from 5 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. at Lincoln Heights Elementary and Middle schools.

She said because of the heat, the health department will test at a later time due to the strain it could cause on healthcare workers dressed in personal protection equipment.

Montgomery said the locations were also carefully selected because health officials hoped these locations would be friendlier and more familiar to the Hispanic population in which cases are surging.

She said testing has increased dramatically at the health department.

“From the moment we open the doors and close them, it’s just boom, boom, boom,” she said.

Dr. Jeff Perry, Hamblen County school superintendent, said the school system plans have not changed.

“We’re still making plans on opening on July 31,” he said.

Graduation plans are still on for East and West high schools for July 23 and 24.

The school system has given an online option this year and he said so far 1,400 students have signed up to take this option. He said the biggest issue right now is that the school system has ordered computers.

“Everybody is ordering them,” Perry said.

Because computer companies are overburdened and the supply chain has been disrupted, those computers may not arrive until the end of August, he said. Contingency plans have been put in place in the meantime.

Mills said the hospital is in the midst of an educational marketing campaign. She said they will be posting billboards with a healthcare worker in a mask with the words, “I wear a mask because I care about you, wear a mask, so you care about me.”

The hospital has also made a video with healthcare workers, she said.

Task force members discussed a marketing campaign and Brittain asked what the focus should be.

Many said it should center on wearing masks, social distancing and slowing the spread of the virus.

“We have to rally around our hospital and what they are doing,” Purkey said.