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Posted on: August 5, 2020

Garland County virus cases flatten, but positivity rate increases

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COVID-19 numbers from Garland County for the week of July 2 – August 2 do show some “positive aspects compared to the previous two weeks” as new cases seem to be “leveling off,” said Garland County Health Officer Dr. Gene Shelby at the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force virtual meeting on August 3.

There were 185 confirmed positive test results reported in Garland County last week, compared to 210 from the previous week. Shelby did note a decline in the total number of test results received last week, which was around 1,500 compared to the previous week’s total of nearly 2,000. Despite the decline in positive cases, the lower number of total tests caused the positive rate of infection in the county to rise above last week’s 10.6% to 12.7%. The number of active cases has also gone up from 215 last week to 240, at the time of the meeting.

“We need to really continue for people to get tested if they feel they may have been exposed to the coronavirus or if they are experiencing any symptoms,” said Shelby.

In terms of educating the importance of testing, a task force member shared that some people are declining COVID-19 testing, despite possible exposure, in order to avoid having to isolate or quarantine themselves. Along with social distancing, face masks and hand washing, the greatest tools available for slowing the spread of this virus are testing, contact tracing and isolation/quarantining. As allergy, cold and flu seasons approach, the question of whether to test and what to do if any COVID-19-related symptoms exist will be exacerbated, but Shelby said we will all have to continue to test and isolate if any such symptoms are present.

“If someone has symptoms that could be from COVID, they should not be allowed at work or in school. We need to be particularly cautious because we don’t want it to spread in these environments,” he said.

The distribution across the county and the age breakdowns among new and possible cases in the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) database, which totaled 237 individuals at the time of the meeting, has not changed significantly from last week, said Shelby. Outreach efforts aimed at the Hispanic population may be helping their numbers decline as there has been a drop from 41 with Spanish surnames in Garland County, or 18% of last week’s total, to 32, which is 13% this week.

Shelby noted that a statistic to keep an eye on as the official start of school approaches is the number of confirmed cases and those possibly exposed that are among youth between the ages of 6-17. There are currently 32 in the county who are on the ADH list in the county as either confirmed positive or for probable exposure.

School district superintendents from across the county joined the task force this week, and each received a warm welcome with a pledge of support as the start of school promises to offer what will be the greatest challenge of the pandemic thus far for Garland County.

Hot Springs School District Superintendent Stephanie Nehus said that as they prepare for their August 24 start of school, they are offering families three options this fall: five days a week of in-school instruction, two days at school and three days of remote learning or five days of remote learning. She said that 60% have chosen traditional, in-school instruction so far. She said they are taking all safety precautions and do feel like they can bring students and teachers back safely, but they are aware they will have cases and they have plans to respond accordingly.

Jessieville School District Superintendent Melissa Speers agreed that they are prepared for cases to arise, and said they are glad to have help being offered in terms of information updates and contact tracing efforts. Their school district is offering the two options of full in-school instruction or completely virtual learning.

Those two options are also being offered at Lake Hamilton School District, as reported by Superintendent Shawn Higginbotham. He said thus far that around 25% of families have chosen virtual learning.

“Things are beginning to pick up like any school year; but as this group knows, this is going to be anything but normal,” said Higginbotham. “There is a high probability that we will have to make hard and unpopular choices moving forward, so we look forward to having the assistance from this task force.”

Cutter Morning Star School District Superintendent Nancy Anderson echoed the appreciation from all school representatives in the meeting to have the support of the task force representatives.

National Park Medical Center (NPMC) and CHI St. Vincent (CHI) shared COVID-19 patient number updates with one seeing an increase with a similar lag in hospitalizations following a rise in case numbers that has been experienced nationwide, and the other having their case numbers remain steady as with the past couple of weeks.

The Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Call Center at 501-760-4307 has had more callers sharing they are symptomatic, and particularly with more gastro-intestinal symptoms. Many continue to request locations offering rapid COVID-19 testing, or the antigen tests, at such a level that probably exceeds available resources within the county.

Public safety agencies shared concerns about staffing strains due to possible COVID-19 exposure and the required isolation and quarantine periods. According to ADH, exposure to the virus is considered for “close contacts who were with the patient while they were infectious and within 6 feet of the patient for more than 15 minutes. Patients are considered infectious 48 hours before symptoms began or before the positive test was collected, if the person never developed symptoms.”

The Garland County Health Unit collected 136 COVID-19 test samples during the past week. Although appointments are not required, they are recommended by calling 501-624-3394.

The United Way of the Ouachitas (UWO) application for individuals and families who have suffered loss of employment as a result of COVID-19 is online at https://www.unitedwayouachitas.org/covid-19-application. Applicants can choose from 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.

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