Following Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force virtual meeting on June 22, where case numbers had stabilized, data from the past week shared at the June 29 meeting showed an upward trend with 50 new cases.
Garland County Health Officer Dr. Gene Shelby shared the updated statistics, including an active case total of 69. This is an increase of 44 from the same time last week. There is a total of 77 individuals the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) is monitoring in Garland County, which includes the active cases and close contacts. Testing in the county was much higher the past week, according to Shelby, with a total of 866 test results reported. This is up from 567 the week before. The positivity rate, though, also increased to 5.8%. Garland County had been averaging a positivity rate between 1-2%.
In terms of the age ranges among the newly reported cases, Shelby said the biggest increase was among the 65-and-older group with 27 new cases, which accounts for 35% of the active cases (up from 30% on June 22). The 25-44 age group accounts for 33% of the active cases; the 45-64 group is at 19%; and the under 25 group is at 13%.
Garland County Judge Darryl Mahoney said that with the age ranges experiencing higher numbers of new active cases, it seems that the county may have had a surge in nursing home testing in the past week. Both Shelby and Mahoney expressed concerns that our older and most vulnerable population group saw the largest increase in new cases. Mahoney added that some of the new cases may also be those who live in Garland County but work at the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ Ouachita River Unit outside of Malvern.
Shelby said that the case data available to him from the Arkansas Department of Health does not designate residents of the county versus those residing within Hot Springs’ city limits, so it is unclear exactly where the new cases are coming from. He was able to see that there are five active cases in Hot Springs Village, which is up four from the June 22 report. Susan Lester of the Garland County Health Unit shared that there are currently two nurses at their location conducting contact tracing for ADH, and there are an additional eight contact tracers coming soon. These localized tracers may help provide more specific information regarding locations and trends among the Garland County cases.
“We are entering a whole new phase of this pandemic, and we’re probably getting new cases from different sources,” Shelby said. “We are going to have to double down on what we’re doing moving forward. With the models being used by public health officials, numbers can double and triple, and hopefully we can get a hold on this so it doesn’t happen to us.”
Just as the overall case numbers have increased, CHI St. Vincent (CHI) and National Park Medical Center (NPMC) both reported an increase in COVID-19 patients. As Hot Springs is a regional healthcare center, they are seeing patients come in from the Southwest Region of the state for treatment. Although numbers are up, they still have ample ICU beds, ventilators and PPE (personal protective equipment). Face masks are required for those entering both area hospitals, but it was noted that they are getting more resistance about wearing face masks from incoming patients and guests. For those who complain of respiratory difficulties, NPMC said that face shields are provided. CHI shared that they are encouraging their leaders and team members to set good examples with regards to wearing face masks while out in the community.
LifeNet said that their call volumes are increasing. While they are still about 10% lower than pre-pandemic numbers, they said they are noticeably getting busier every day. They received a shipment of PPE last week, so they are in good shape with their supplies as well.
Hot Springs City Manager Bill Burrough and Mahoney said that the City and County are working to stock up on PPE now that suppliers seem to have caught up with demand. Burrough said that the City will be watching the case numbers closely over the next week to determine if alternate work schedules for City departments will be implemented again. “If we have one person who contracts the virus, we could lose an entire department. If the numbers continue to grow, our alternate work schedule will ensure we at least have partial staffs available,” he said.
Gary Troutman, of the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce, and Steve Arrison, of Visit Hot Springs, both joined the task force meetings starting this week and offered to use their contact lists as a way to share updates from the task force. Troutman said the Chamber’s database of around 2,200 could be a conduit of information. He said that while Chamber membership has dropped slightly in the three months of dealing with COVD-19, they know of only a few confirmed business closures due to the pandemic thus far.
Arrison said they have been featuring face mask promotions on their newsletter, which goes to 48,000 subscribers, as well as on their digital signage. He said that Hot Springs has had guests from all 50 states since recreational travel restrictions were lifted, and that the Hot Springs Visitor Center has been averaging guests from between 12-15 states daily. “It’s been very confusing as we have been trying to keep our economy going, but at the same time we live here, our kids live here, and we want to keep it a safe place,” he said.
Sarah Fowler, executive director for the United Way of the Ouachitas (UWO), said the UWO has provided more than $27,000 in COVID-19 assistance to 116 families for food, housing, utilities, etc. She said there is are many more applications in process. UWO partner agencies across the region are continuing to see an influx of families needing assistance. “A lot of what we are seeing are those who are self-employed. Those who do not qualify for employer benefits,” she said. The UWO is still waiting for $45,000 in COVID-19 relief funds to benefit Garland County residents.
The UWO application for individuals and families who have suffered loss of employment of income as a result of COVID-19 is online at https://www.unitedwayouachitas.org/covid-19-application. Applicants can choose for assistance in several categories, including food, rent, utility bills, medical/prescription costs and costs for gas or public transportation. To donate to the COVID-19 Relief Fund, visit www.bit.ly/UWO-COVID, call 501-623-2505 or send a check by mail at 233 Hobson Avenue, Hot Springs, AR 71913.