JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – There was a pretty basic explanation for Ballad Health’s decision to close its Northeast Tennessee community vaccination sites after Jan. 22, CEO Alan Levine told News Channel 11 this week.
Area health departments had developed the capacity to effectively administer the number of first doses the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH) was providing to the region, he said.
If and when that supply increases enough that the departments need additional sites provided, Levine said Ballad’s ready to jump back in. The system is still operating community sites in Southwest Virginia.
“At the end of the day everybody’s goal is to get as much vaccine out as possible as fast as possible and whatever we can do to help the department of health do that we’re prepared to do it and we’ll do it enthusiastically,” Levine said.
He said the hospital system continues to provide personnel support in Northeast Tennessee. And cited a point two weeks ago when the Sullivan County Health Department had about 1,200 doses.
“Dividing that among three different locations would’ve made it inefficient and by the time people would have gotten there everybody would have run out,” Levine said. “So rather than replicate those assets we instead threw in and redeployed our people to the Bristol Motor Speedway to help the department of health.”
During the roughly two weeks it did offer three community sites in Northeast Tennessee, Ballad was primarily offering vaccines to Ballad Health Medical Associates patients over 75 — though leaders had said they were planning to broaden the rollout to anyone regardless of provider.
TDH added some parameters for hospital systems the week of Jan. 18, stressing the importance of equitable distribution regardless of people’s income, affiliation with the system or any other factors. Levine said those requirements weren’t what caused Ballad to shift its approach.
“We agree. You want to make sure you’re getting to the population that doesn’t have as easy a way of getting there and nowhere in the state is that more prevalent than in our region where you have a lot of rural areas with a lot of poverty.
“There’s nothing the Department of Health has asked of us that we’re concerned about, we were doing it before we’ll do it again.”
Levine said two main levers would prompt Ballad to reopen community sites.
“Is there a large enough supply and is it reliable enough,” he said.
“Number two what we’re gonna watch is, if the department of health finds themselves – if the good news is that there’s enough vaccine, the bad news is that they’re getting overwhelmed at their locations — at that point maybe it makes sense to reopen ours and take the pressure off.”
Levine said Ballad has administered more than 25,000 vaccine doses and said he believes the system’s a big reason the region is outpacing its respective states of Tennessee and Virginia in vaccines administered.
“I’m proud that our region leads the entire state and it doesn’t just lead Tennessee it leads Virginia, so there’s a common factor there, and the common factor is Ballad’s been involved and we’ve been contributing,” he said.
Like TDH commissioner Dr. Lisa Piercey, Levine said supply is something health leaders have been clamoring for — particularly as they keep a watchful eye on new strains that have begun appearing in the U.S.
“We understand what we’re up against with this new strain and we don’t want it to get here and become the prevalent strain and people not have their vaccines,” he said.
“I think all of us are joining the call, whatever can happen at the federal level to get vaccines — the volume, the supply and the reliability improved — I think that would be well received.”