COVID hospitalizations climbing at unprecedented rate, Ballad Health glad for help from National Guard


The actual surge of COVID hospitalizations has happened much more quickly than the last time that we experienced this…’

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – As COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to rise across the region, 20 National Guard members have been deployed to the Johnson City Medical Center to help Ballad Health with the sudden surge.

Hospitalizations have skyrocketed in the Ballad Health system over the last month, qualifying JCMC — the hospital system’s largest facility –for external resources provided by the National Guard.

Lisa Smithgall, Chief Nursing Executive for Ballad Health told News Channel 11 that 20 total guard members have been deployed to JCMC, 10 of which are medics and the remaining 10 of which will provide non-clinical assistance to Ballad staff.

The actual surge of COVID hospitalizations has happened much more quickly than the last time that we experienced this …

ballad health chief nursing executive lisa smithgall

This is the second time the guard has assisted Ballad since the beginning of the pandemic. The previous stint was last winter, during the last surge in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the region.

The 10 medics will provide direct patient care, including phlebotomy and starting IVs and assisting with the patient care provision for COVID unit clinical nursing teams, Smithgall said.

The teams will also work in emergency departments, “where the COVID patients are presenting an increased number specifically both adult care and pediatric care which we’re experiencing increasing COVID patients in that area,” she said.

Only medical guard members were deployed during the previous COVID surge, but now, administrative service members are also involved. According to Smithgall, they will help support the clinical teams provide patient care.

“They don’t actually perform patient care but they’ll do a lot of the duties that will support patient care, adding and stocking our supplies, transporting patients potentially, comforting patients who are alone in the hospital, rounding in our areas to support the team, answering telephones, lots of supportive activity that needs to be done, that was taking perhaps our clinical teams away from the patient care that they need to provide so we are really excited about that,” she said.

Johnson City Medical Center is the only Ballad facility to receive help from the National Guard as of Monday. JCMC has the largest volume of COVID patients in the southern market of Ballad Health, Smithgall explained, but the system also requested help for Holston Valley and Bristol Regional medical centers.

She said Ballad continues to work with Tennessee Emergency Management contacts in the Northeast Regional Health Department and also the Sullivan County Regional Health Department who are assisting them with obtaining those external resources.

“The actual surge of COVID hospitalizations has happened much more quickly than the last time that we experienced this, and we actually had National Guard, in the last surge as well,” Smithgall said.

COVID patients in Ballad Health ICUs have increased nearly sixfold since July 28, with patients on ventilators increasing by 10 times. (WJHL Photo)

The criteria placed by the Tennessee Department of Health for a facility to receive help from the National Guard includes:

  • The facility has to have a greater than 95% occupancy rate, and
  • a greater than 30% patient population in the intensive care units made up of COVID patients.

Smithgall said that JCMC and Holston Valley Medical Center fall under both those criteria.

“That means that we have a much larger percentage of patients in our hospitals who are COVID positive patients, and that’s why it’s needed, because again, as we’ve previously shared in some of our press conferences, patients who are hospitalized with COVID are much more sick than those traditional patients and they require a lot more care and they need a lot more support. So our teams are overtaxed and the support with the National Guard, really does help relieve them a little bit by having additional resources that we didn’t have in the hospital to help care for those patients,” she said.

The culprit behind the surge in COVID patients has been identified as the lack of vaccine uptake, along with the spread of the much-more-contagious Delta variant.

“We’ve also seen that patients who acquire the Delta variant are very very sick, they’re sicker than the previous strain, and what happens as a result, as you mentioned is that we have a higher number of hospitalizations, that happen really quickly, we have a higher number of ICU patients as a part of the hospitalizations, and subsequently then a higher number of ventilated patients in the ICU,” Smithgall explained.

She said that Ballad has moved away from intubating as many COVID patients in the past, providing assistive ventilation therapies instead.

“That’s why it’s also such a significant impact to our staff, because the more sick that you are, the more resources that you need, the more therapies that you need, and there are a higher number of patients with that same number of staff previously there. So we’re having sicker patients with the same resources which is why it’s really critical that we can get some external resources from the National Guard,” she added.

Smithgall said the hospital system is taking daily stock of personal protective equipment (PPE) inventories, along with keeping a close eye on the essential equipment needed to serve COVID patients, such as ventilators and IV pumps.

“All those critical things that these patients need … more of than our traditional patient populations,” she said. “Today we have those resources but again we are continuing to monitor it, and depending on the quick surge that might occur. Of course, we may have to look at that in the future but we continue to evaluate that on a daily basis.”

Ballad Health maintains the message that vaccines are the best defense against contracting COVID-19 and becoming hospitalized.

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