NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — A Tennessee hospital executive, who has served two Republican governors and contributed to Gov. Bill Lee, is sounding the alarm about a looming crisis of COVID-infected children that, he warns, hospitals are not prepared to handle.
In a strongly-worded Facebook post that describes a worst-case scenario, the chairman and CEO of Ballad Health -- a hospital chain based in northeast Tennessee -- warns that "freelance, self-appointed experts" have compromised efforts to protect kids from the deadly virus.
"Our system is simply not being permitted to work as designed, and I do think there are consequences to this," Alan Levine wrote in the post on Ballad Health's Facebook page.
He described himself as "a freedom-loving, 2nd Amendment supporting, federalist Republican."
"While I strongly disagree with those who feel masking is an infringement on liberty, I do understand where these folks are coming from. THAT HAVING BEEN SAID: political choices come with tradeoffs. Choosing individual liberty and freedom is a legitimate position to take, but ... you have a clear-eyed understanding of what the tradeoff is for yourself and for your fellow citizens."
His message to parents was blunt: "If your child is in a school now, and there is no masking, it is highly likely your child is being exposed, even if they are asymptomatic."
Levine previously served as a healthcare adviser to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. His company, Ballad Health, serves 29 counties of Northeast Tennessee, Southwest Virginia, Northwest North Carolina and Southeast Kentucky.
The post comes just days after Bill Lee issued an executive order that effectively prevents school boards from implementing mask mandates to slow the spread of COVID-19. House Speaker Cameron Sexton had previously threatened to ask for a special session, arguing that politicians are better judges of what kind of policies are needed than medical professionals. Lt. Gov. Randy McNally recently threatened consequences if school systems defied the governor.
Levine did not call out any of the state's leaders by name.
"I hold many of our leaders and others who disagree with me in very high regard, and so my comments here are not intended to imply that I have a broad disagreement with them," he said.
"But on this issue, I am concerned for where this is taking us, and I worry about it."
Levine's post says families should expect children will bring the virus home from school, and "their family, if unvaccinated, will be exposed."
"More children and teens will be hospitalized," but "our system of health care for children is not built for this kind of surge," he continued.
"So, other kids, who have other medical needs, may find it challenging to get the care they need."
Tennessee only has five pediatric hospitals, and Ballad Health only has 10 pediatric ICU beds, with two teenagers now on ventilators.
"Thankfully, we have not yet begun to see increased inpatients, but we believe that is coming," Levine wrote.
"Our advocacy for full mitigation measures in the schools is, in part, based upon our concern that if there are no mitigation efforts, our hospital for children will be overwhelmed, and unable to serve kids with COVID AND kids with other health conditions or traumatic injury."
The healthcare executive also warned that more children, including those who never exhibit COVID symptoms, will be hit with a debilitating, even deadly condition called Multisystem Inflammatory Syndrome in Children - or MIS-C.
It can take six weeks after exposure to the virus for MIS-C to manifest itself.
"So, as COVID spreads through the schools, particularly in schools where there are no, or limited, mitigation efforts underway, the die is already being cast for what is to come in the coming months."
The Ballad Health executive was blunt in his advice to families, shifting into all capital letters for his statement.
"What should parents look for? A fever AND any of the following signs/symptoms: Abdominal Pain, bloodshot eyes, chest tightness/pain, diarrhea, feeling extra tired, headache, low blood pressure, neck pain, rash, vomiting. YOU SHOULD SEEK EMERGENCY CARE IMMEDIATELY FOR YOUR CHILD IF THEY EXPERIENCE TROUBLE BREATHING, PERSISTENT PAIN OR PRESSURE IN THE CHEST, NEW CONFUSION, INABILITY TO AWAKEN OR STAY AWAKE, PALE, GRAY OR BLUE-COLORED SKIN, LIPS OR NAIL BEDS."
Levine said that "MIS-C can be deadly, but timely medical care is proving to be effective."
"Generally, children with MIS-C will need to be hospitalized. What's critically important to know is that, right now, our children's hospitals are seeing huge surges in COVID cases through testing, and increasingly, in the ER, most of which are not being admitted to the hospital. And yet, around the country, children's hospitals are filling up."
On top of that, the upcoming flu season is also expected to be serious.
"We are headed into a period which is going to be very challenging for our system of care for children, and children will feel the impact of this."