Garland County Health Officer Dr. Gene Shelby shared at the Aug. 24 meeting of the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force that he is pleased with the current numbers for Garland County, but he continues to stress the importance of wearing masks and socially distancing to avoid spikes in cases in the coming weeks.
“I’m really happy with our numbers, but we have to realize that a certain amount of the recent decline is due to a drop in testing. We have a little bit of a decrease, but we are really most likely on a plateau and have challenges ahead with school openings and Labor Day,” he said. “Our history of the past two holiday weekends has not been good. We all have to wear masks, social distance and be smart to not create another peak in cases.”
For the week of Aug. 16-23, Shelby reported 114 new cases – a considerable drop compared to cases from the previous five weeks in Garland County. The average of new cases per day was down from 24 to 16.2. Another substantial decline was in the number of active cases, which fell from 240 at the previous meeting to 176, as of Monday morning. The total of those in the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) database for the county – all active and possible contacts – is down from 260 to 187.
To put these numbers in perspective, however, Shelby said the number of tests completed last week was also down considerably at 1,114. He said this is the lowest amount collected in a week since mid-July. He is not sure what has caused the number of people seeking tests to decline, but did refer to previous task force discussions in which the issue of people not wanting to quarantine following a test was mentioned. The decline in testing numbers has also been addressed by Arkansas Secretary of Health Dr. Jose Romero at the governor’s daily COVID-19 press briefings. Both Shelby and Romero encourage anyone needing a COVID-19 test to please get one, and that the local health units complete the tests at no charge. The Garland County Health Unit provides drive-up testing from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m., Monday through Friday, at 1425 Malvern Avenue. Appointments can be made by calling (501) 624-3394. There are also several other testing locations in Hot Springs and throughout the county. A complete list is available at bit.ly/HSGC-testing-sites.
Taking into consideration the lower test count, the positivity rate for Garland County has remained above 10% at 10.2%, compared to recent weeks’ 11.8% and 12.7%.
The distribution in the county showed that the Garland County portion of Hot Springs Village dropped from 15 to 11 active cases; Mountain Pine went from one case to five; and Royal, which has consistently been around 10 active cases, dropped to two. Cases among those with Spanish surnames remained consistent with 32 active cases, compared to last week’s 34; but due to a drop in overall cases for the county, the percent of Hispanic cases went to 16% of the total from last week’s 13%. The 0-17 age group dropped from 9.2% of the total to 7%. Shelby said he is concerned about the increase in the 65-and-older group, which went up from 19% to 20.3%.
The number of deaths was up to 25 at the time of the meeting, which is an increase of eight from the time of the previous week’s meeting.
Representatives from National Park Medical Center and CHI St. Vincent shared that COVID-19 numbers have remained steady from last week. Both hospitals have already seen flu patients.
Area school superintendents shared their positive experiences and feelings regarding the start of school, with the anticipated issue of heavy traffic being the only concern thus far on the first day of school.
Susan Lester, Garland County Health Unit administrator, said they received a rapid-response antigen test machine and 30 test kits from the state. The antigen tests are reserved for students and school personnel who are symptomatic, and if the health unit runs out of antigen tests, they will continue to prioritize students, teachers and staff in the processing of PCR tests with ADH. They are not sure if or when they may receive additional antigen kits.
The United Way of the Ouachitas continues to work to meet the needs of the community. The UWO application for COVID-19 assistance is online at https://www.unitedwayouachitas.org/covid-19-application. 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.
Hot Springs Fire Chief Ed Davis reminded everyone that cloth face masks need to be washed regularly to ensure proper respiratory hygiene.
City Manager Bill Burrough expressed his appreciation for everything that everyone on the task force has been doing, and he hopes the trend of lowering active cases continues. County Judge Darryl Mahoney said they continue to focus on hospitals and schools to provide what they need. He said they are continuing to locate PPE and stockpile supplies, and that he feels the county is in good shape heading into the start of school.