The drastic upward trend of new COVID-19 cases in Garland County following the Christmas and New Year’s holidays is continuing, putting a strain on local hospitals.
“We have a surging, deadly pandemic that is getting worse here. The chances of getting COVID in Garland County are higher than they have ever been because there is so much active virus in the county,” said Garland County Health Officer Dr. Gene Shelby. “The vaccine right now is not having any effect on this and will not for a few months, so we need to double down on our efforts.”
At the Jan. 11 virtual meeting of the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force, Shelby provided updated statistics for the week of Jan. 3-10 ahead of reports and discussion among the task force relating to area hospitals, schools, first responders, community/government and COVID-19 vaccinations.
A record number of new cases were reported in Garland County last week at 693, despite a lower number of tests being reported – 2,680. This caused the county’s rate of positivity to jump to 25%, up from last week’s record high of 17.1%.
“I am not sure what to attribute the lower number of tests, which is the lowest number that we have had in five weeks,” said Shelby. “With so much talk about the COVID vaccine, I hope that people are not neglecting to get tested if they are experiencing symptoms or have been in contact with a COVID-positive individual.”
In addition, the number of active cases in the county rose to another record of 841 at the time of the meeting Monday morning, which is 137 more than the same time the previous week. “At this rate, we will have more than 1,000 active cases in Garland County soon,” said Shelby.
There were 12 deaths reported, meaning the county has averaged around two deaths per day over the past two weeks.
Distribution across the county is widespread. Hot Springs Village remained at what was an all-time high of 75 active cases from last week; Mountain Pine rose from eight to 17; and Pearcy rose from 20 to 23.
Dr. Doug Ross, president of CHI St. Vincent, said they have seen a significant surge from a hospitalization standpoint, which is tracking the rise in cases in the community. The ICU has been full for a month, and ICU patients have been cared for in other parts of the hospital as a part of the hospital’s surge plan. There were a couple of days in recent weeks in which as many as 15-20 COVID patients were admitted in a single night. He said some staff members are sick, making staffing available beds a challenge, but that the “team has done a great job of making sure patients are flowing through the system well and getting out the back door so we can keep the front door open.”
Ross said that they have had some “very good success” with the monoclonal antibody treatment. The hospital has used the treatment on more than 100 patients now. It helps keep high-risk patients, including those who are 65-and-older and with co-morbidities, from developing severe cases of COVID-19 that would require hospitalization. He is hoping to continue to spread the word to area primary care providers that there are still monoclonal antibody treatments available, even though the quantity comes from the Department of Health and is in limited supply.
National Park Medical Center (NPMC) reported they had a little spike in positive cases among their employees, which has settled back down. NPMC also has some of the monoclonal antibody treatments available for members of the community referred from their general practitioner.
An update on vaccine distribution to Phase 1-A was provided by 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. He said there are between 2,000-3,000 individuals who qualify for Phase 1-A (healthcare workers, first responders and residents and staff of long-term care facilities) still to be vaccinated in Garland County. Once those are complete, the county can move to Phase 1-B. Turner has been coordinating vaccinations with the list of healthcare provider offices provided to him by the state, but anyone in Phase 1-A who needs to schedule vaccinations can email email@example.com.
NPMC is hosting COVID-19 Vaccines for Community Healthcare Partners clinics for those in Phase 1-A as a gesture of thanks for their collaboration over these past few months through the pandemic. The first clinic will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 14. If your organization is interested in participating in this or a future clinic, email firstname.lastname@example.org with the following: organization name; primary contact name, phone and email; organization’s qualifying Primary Group criteria under Arkansas Phase 1A.3 guidelines; and the number of staff who have chosen to receive a COVID-19 vaccine. The Priority Group environments falling under Phase 1A.3 include hospitals and healthcare providers that provide care within a hospital; primary care (family medicine, internal medicine, obstetrics/gynecology, pediatrics); occupational health; urgent care; any health worker performing COVID-19 testing or vaccinations; university or K-12 health providers; dental clinics; pharmacies; PACE (Programs of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly); home health, private care/personal care; hospice; dialysis; blood donation centers; and EMS (emergency medical services)/patient transportation. Appointment availability at the Jan. 14 clinic will vary depending on quantity of vaccine received and the number of interested community healthcare providers.
The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) estimates that Phase 1-B will begin in February and Phase 1-C will begin in April. On the ADH website, healthy.arkansas.gov, they explain, “Though the development of a COVID-19 vaccine has followed an accelerated timeline, safety has been the top priority.” For updates and information on the COVID-19 vaccine distribution in Arkansas and Garland County, visit www.cityhs.net/vaccine or https://www.healthy.arkansas.gov/programs-services/topics/covid-19-vaccination-plan. As the vaccination distribution progresses, it is important to remember that the virus mitigation efforts of wearing a face mask, socially distancing and washing of hands needs to continue.
Several of the Garland County school district representatives said they continue to be challenged with high case counts and quarantine requirements from the holiday break, including the Hot Springs School District, which was reporting its highest numbers so far. Mountain Pine School District also has a large number in quarantine, and parents were given the option of virtual learning for the next couple of weeks. Other districts, including Lakeside and Lake Hamilton, said they have a relatively low numbers of current cases. School districts are also preparing for Phase 1-B of the vaccination plan, which includes school staff. They are surveying employees to determine interest, and encouraging everyone to participate by sharing details and safety information about the clinically proven vaccine.
Even though the county’s testing numbers were down last week, the Garland County Health Unit provided COVID-19 tests for 219 individuals. 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 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 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. The health unit will be closed on Monday, Jan. 18, for Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
City Manager Bill Burrough and County Judge Darryl Mahoney both said they have seen an increase in positive cases in their respective agency departments. Mahoney said that they are on top of a small outbreak at the Garland County Detention Center. He also commended Bo Robertson, Garland County Emergency Management director, for “working tirelessly, day in and day out, on coordinating vaccine distribution for the county.” Burrough said that the City’s Human Resource Department is in quarantine after a positive case, as well as one in Finance that has limited their staffing.
Andrew Coker, economic resiliency coordinator at the West Central Arkansas Planning and Development District, Inc. provided an overview on the new federal stimulus funds passed in late December. More information is available at https://www.ncsl.org/Portals/1/Documents/statefed/Summary-of-HR-133-Coronavirus-Relief-Provisions.pdf.
The United Way of the Ouachitas has 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.