Although the start of the vaccine rollout offers hope, it will still likely be months before doses of the vaccine are available for the general public. In the meantime, record-level COVID-19 statistics for Garland County, including rising hospitalizations, are stark reminders for continued vigilance to do everything possible to alleviate the spread of the virus.
Cody Turner, pharmacist at Village Healthmart East Gate Pharmacy who is helping coordinate and distribute COVID-19 vaccines to Garland County and other areas of the state, joined the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force at the Jan. 4 virtual meeting. He said he has been inundated with phone calls from individuals asking about the vaccine, taking up as much as four hours of a workday. He asks that individuals refrain from calling his or other pharmacies contracted with the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) for vaccine distribution, but rather for individuals to complete the online COVID Vaccine Wait List form at https://www.villagehealthmart.com/covid-vaccine-wait-list. All of the contracted pharmacies are following the ADH COVID-19 Vaccination Phased Plan, available/updated at https://www.healthy.arkansas.gov/programs-services/topics/covid-19-vaccination-plan, which is currently still on Phase 1A – healthcare workers, long-term care facilities and first responders. At the current pace, he estimates it could be late February or into March or later before vaccine doses will be available for the general public. As distribution of the vaccine progresses to new phases and to the public, Turner said they are going to get the word out via every method possible. There is also a local vaccine information page that will be updated at www.cityhs.net/vaccine.
“I think the vaccine has to be a high priority, but at the same time we have to keep doing what we have been doing,” said Garland County Health Officer Dr. Gene Shelby. “There is obviously lots of virus in Garland County, and we have to keep wearing the masks, social distancing and hand washing. The vaccine is going to make a difference in the long term, but in the short term we have to use our current tools and not let our guard down.”
This reminder came following updates from area hospitals reporting even higher numbers than the record patient counts reported at the Dec. 28 meeting and Shelby’s update on Garland County’s COVID statistics for the week of Dec. 27 – Jan. 3, which also included multiple record-setting categories.
A CHI St. Vincent representative said they have seen the rate of positivity skyrocket in the past couple of weeks. With the number of patients continuing to increase, they had to open a third COVID unit last week. National Park Medical Center also reported an increase in COVID patient numbers and a higher percentage of patients testing positive through their emergency department. Staffing has also been strained because of quarantine and isolation.
Hospital representatives hope to continue to let the community know about the availability of monoclonal infusion treatments. It is an outpatient, hour-long infusion for high-risk COVID-19 patients early in their infection period, and it is only available as prescribed from a patient’s primary care physician. They reported seeing “amazing results,” and that it helps keep people out of the hospital. “It is a game changer for the elderly and those with co-morbidities,” one hospital representative said.
Multiple task force representatives expressed the importance of workers in all fields to follow quarantine and isolation guidelines. There continue to be instances in which individuals report to work even though they are experiencing COVID-related symptoms or after they have been exposed to the virus. Those riding in a vehicle or living with someone who is getting tested for COVID-19 are considered direct contacts and should also follow the quarantine guidelines.
Shelby said that even though Garland County reached record levels last week, he thinks we are just seeing the start of the spike from the Christmas holiday weekend and that we are likely to experience a second jump from the New Year’s holiday weekend. There was a record 554 new cases reported in Garland County last week for an average of 79 new cases each day, well above the previous record of 64. The positivity rate also hit a record high of 17.1%. The number of active cases in the county rose to its highest point last week at 724, before dropping to 704 at the time of the meeting.
There were 14 deaths reported during the week. Shelby noted that the death rate in Garland County is around 155 per 100,000 residents, which is higher than the state average of between 120-125 per 100,000. He said this is reflective of the county’s older population and higher percentage of those over 65 that contracted the virus.
Two of the county’s school districts – Fountain Lake and Lake Hamilton – lost a staff member to COVID-19 over the break. As the school districts return to session this week, they reported at the Monday meeting they are still assessing where they are in terms of active cases and close contacts for quarantine. Most districts were already noticing higher numbers from the holiday surge.
Distribution across the county shows that Hot Springs Village reached record levels for a third-straight week, rising from 41 to 75 active cases; Royal also recorded another all-time high of 43 cases, up from 36; and Jessieville rose from 20 to 25.
Susan Lester, director of the Garland County Health Unit, said they anticipate another busy week like when they returned from the long Christmas weekend. She said they, too, are receiving a high call volume with questions relating to vaccine distribution. The local health units do not currently have the COVID vaccine available, but are still providing the 2020 flu vaccination on a walk-in basis to those who would like to receive it. The health unit provided COVID tests for a total of 140 individuals last week. Those wishing to be tested are advised to call ahead to schedule an appointment at 501-624-3394. When arriving for an appointment for COVID testing, individuals should park their vehicle in a parking space reserved by a numbered cone, stay inside their vehicle and call to inform the representatives which number is indicated on the cone. The health unit is located at 1425 Malvern Avenue and is open from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday – Friday. Tuesday hours are 9:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.
City Manager Bill Burrough shared that more than $50,000 in food assistance from the Community Development Block Grant CARES Act (CBDG-CV) funds will be administered through a food provider to allow several local non-profits purchasing credits for food boxes and prepared meals for Hot Springs households experiencing food insecurity due to COVID-19. There will also be more than $100,000 in rental assistance and approximately $35,000 in utility assistance, also from the CDBG-CV program, that is in a request for proposals to be opened on Jan. 11 for a partner program to administer.
Sarah Fowler, executive director of the United Way of the Ouachitas, said they were thankful of the one-month extension to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s eviction moratorium. Although their phones are a little quieter after this extension, they do expect calls to pick back up as the new Jan. 31 moratorium deadline approaches. There is an application for COVID-19 assistance for area families and individuals affected by the pandemic 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.