Four new COVID-19 cases have been confirmed in the Mountain Empire, according to Ballad Health and the Virginia Department of Health. In a news briefing Thursday, Ballad Health leaders also said health officials are starting to see evidence of community-based spread of the virus.

The health system confirmed three cases Thursday morning, according to Jamie Swift, Ballad’s corporate director of infection prevention. One case came out of each of the following localities: Sullivan County, Unicoi County and Washington County, Virginia.

Later in the day, The Virginia Department of Health also reported one new case in Bristol, Virginia.

Swift said these new cases were unlikely to be immediately reflected in state figures released Thursday.

The most current figures for Virginia show a total of 460 confirmed cases statewide with four in far Southwest Virginia, including two cases in Lee County, one in Washington County and one in Bristol, Virginia.

In Tennessee, state health officials have confirmed 957 total cases. In Northeast Tennessee, the number of confirmed cases includes eight in Greene County, one in Hawkins County, four in Sullivan County and nine in Washington County.

Most of the initial cases in the region had been tied to travel, but Ballad Health CEO Alan Levine said the health system is starting to see “evidence of a little bit of community spread,” which refers to the transmission of the virus to people who haven’t traveled outside the region.

Ballad leaders continued to reiterate the recommendation for the public to practice social distancing by staying home and keeping at least a 6-foot distance from other people to limit the spread of coronavirus.

“We really want to stress that it’s physical distancing,” Swift said.

But practicing social distancing does not have to be a totally isolating experience — an individual can still go for a walk outside if they need fresh air and stay in touch with other people through technology like FaceTime, she added.

As for Ballad’s testing capabilities, Levine said the health system plans to start conducting tests at its own facilities but is still waiting for the chemical substances used in the process to arrive.

Clay Runnels, Ballad’s chief physician executive, also took some time Thursday to distinguish coronavirus from influenza.

“COVID-19 is definitely not the flu,” he said.

Some key differences, Runnels said, are that the coronavirus is more infectious, has a higher rate of serious illness requiring hospitalization and has a broader range of symptoms, from few or no symptoms to critical and life-threatening symptoms.

Symptoms of COVID-19 can include fever, cough and shortness of breath.

Individuals who think they may have the virus can call Ballad Health’s Nurse Connect hotline at 833-822-5523 for a prescreening. People with symptoms or connections to international travel will be transferred to a provider to determine whether testing is necessary, according to Ballad’s website.

Although Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia have not seen the large number of cases that other communities in the country are reporting, Levine said Ballad is preparing for a potential surge in infections.

Public health officials are urging communities to take precautions to slow the spread of coronavirus and prevent local health care systems from becoming overwhelmed.

“The most important thing you can do is to stay at home if you don’t need to be out,” Levine said.

tdodson@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2567 | Twitter: @Tim_Dodson

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