Blount Memorial Hospital last month had two inpatients with COVID-19. That number now has reached 28, BMH Chief Medical Officer Dr. Harold Naramore told the hospital board of directors Tuesday.

In total, the county had 156 identified infections on June 28, Naramore said. On Tuesday, there had been 850 cases countywide.

“We certainly have had a striking increase in the amount of COVID we’ve seen,” he said. “It probably is a reflection of not doing as good of a job as we’d like to do in terms of social distancing, washing our hands and wearing a mask. This is the only defense we have against this virus at present.”

Naramore added that though prevention of the virus has not been successful in the county, Blount Memorial has gotten better at testing and treating COVID-19.

BMH only tests people who have symptoms. The only exceptions, he said, are new patients who are tested before being admitted.

“Cases are on the rise, and we’re keeping a close eye on that,” Naramore said three weeks ago after the hospital reenacted new-admission testing. “By testing our inpatient admissions, we can quickly know if patients coming into our hospital have COVID-19 and whether they are symptomatic or not.”

In addition to tests for the virus, BMH also is rolling out antibody tests today, Wednesday, July 29.

The first round of testing will be available for Blount Memorial employees, Naramore said.

“We’re going to do our employees first for a couple of reasons,” Naramore said. “One is we want to see how many people have been exposed to the virus and how many people may have some immunity.”

Antibody testing at Blount Memorial will open up to the general public within two to three weeks, BMH Public Relations Manager Jennie Bounds said.

“It’s 100% sensitive and 99.6% specific,” Naramore said of the tests. “(The test) can tell you whether you’ve been exposed to the virus or not, if you have an antibody or have been exposed.”

If a person has a neutralizing antibody, it usually indicates immunity; however, that’s not the case for COVID-19, he said.

“We don’t know enough about the virus yet to know how much antibodies it takes to confirm immunity,” he said. “Hardly anybody believes there’s lifelong immunity of this virus.”

Naramore said the benefit of getting an antibody test is that if it comes back as positive for COVID-19 antibodies, the person with the antibodies then would be able to donate convalescent plasma that could be used to treat patients with active COVID-19 infections.

“Convalescent plasma is critically important to treating this virus nationally,” Naramore said. “It’s a very effective treatment for this virus, and it’s critically important to continue to have good levels of convalescent plasma.”

On May 8, Blount Memorial administered convalescent plasma to Tonya Jones, a COVID-19 inpatient. Eight days later, Jones was able to go home.

“Our hope is if we identify people here who are antibody positive, we will encourage everyone to consider giving plasma,” Naramore said. “I’m going to get antibody tested. If my antibodies come back as positive, I plan to give plasma. It’s lifesaving, so we have to count on each other to do it.”

Follow @sshreports on Twitter for more from county government reporter Shelby Harris.

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