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Ballad Health institutes crisis staffing

The hospital system that serves the southwest corner of Virginia and northeast Tennessee says it’s implementing crisis staffing.

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Ballad Health has more COVID-positive inpatients now than at any point in the pandemic. And more than 800 employees, about 6.4 % of the work force, are out too, according to CEO Alan Levine. "As a hospital system that has to care for people who are very sick, there’s a point beyond which it becomes more risky to keep these people home and not take care of the people that need help. And that’s the point we’re at," Levine said during a Thursday afternoon news conference.

The designation means COVID-positive employees who are asymptomatic are expected to return to work. "We will deploy those team members where appropriate to help support our clinical staff. If they’re clinical, it’s possible they could come back and work in a COVID unit. They could work in the emergency department as a sitter," Levine said.
They won’t work in certain places like oncology units or the children’s hospital. Employees who have been symptomatic but have improved may also be allowed to work. Levine said crisis staffing procedures follow guidance set by the Centers for Disease Control.

Hospital officials say they’re trying not to suspend elective procedures for a third time during the pandmic.

Ballad reported 436 COVID-positive inpatients Thursday, higher than the previous record of 413 set last fall. The testing positivity rate in Ballad's 21 county service area is nearly 45%, slightly higher than Tennessee's statewide average and well above Virginia's statewide average of 28%. Hospital officials say modeling suggests the number of COVID-positive inpatients may stay around 400 for another week or so before beginning to decline.

Chief Nursing Executive Lisa Smithgall said Ballad requested National Guard assistance for its Virginia facilities but was still awaiting an answer. National Guard help is not available for its Tennessee facilities because a state emergency declaration was allowed to expire.

Federal vaccination deadline also approaching

A federal vaccination requirement for hospital employees is also approaching and could impact staffing further. Hospitals that receive reimbursement from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services must have their employees vaccinated or covered by an exemption by mid-February. Nearly all hospitals in the country participate in CMS programs.

Levine said Thursday that nearly a thousand Ballad Health employees remained unvaccinated and had not applied for an exemption. While Levine said the company is committed to encouraging them to get vaccinated, the impact of losing another thousand employees would be catastrophic. "It seems quite illogical at a time where we’re having to put crisis staffing in place, to then turn around and ask a thousand people to leave," Levine said. "But that’s something we are loathe to do."

Levine said he couldn't predict what CMS would do when the deadline hits, but he believed the organization would be understanding of health care systems that are making good faith efforts to get more employees vaccinated. "I can’t even imagine what it would look like to terminate a thousand employees right now," he said. Such an outcome would conflict with another CMS rule that says hospitals must maintain a safe level of staffing, Levine argued.

David Seidel is proud to lead the journalists at Radio IQ and WVTF as news director. David joined the newsroom in May 2017 and brings more than 20 years of experience in broadcast journalism in Virginia. Prior to joining Radio IQ David was an assistant news director, assignment manager and producer at WDBJ Television in Roanoke. He also worked as a reporter for WHSV Television in Harrisonburg. David graduated from Washington and Lee University in Lexington with degrees in journalism and history.