Garland County Health Officer Dr. Gene Shelby told the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force at the meeting on Monday, Feb. 1, that the county has seen across the board improvement this past week. He warned, however, that there is a long road ahead in the pandemic and any relenting of the efforts taken thus far to mitigate the spread of the virus will lead to future spikes in new cases.
Shelby said the main reason for the recent drop-off in COVID-19 cases is the fact that people are not gathering like what was taking place during the holiday season. He said that Super Bowl Sunday, Feb. 7, will need to be different this year because if people gather, we will see an increase in cases. Although the vaccine rollout continues, Shelby said we are still far away from it contributing to decreasing cases. He said the state is currently at 7.3% vaccinated, and it will need to be at 50-60% before we start to see a significant impact.
The statewide vaccine distribution continues with Phase 1-A groups – healthcare, long-term care facilities and first responders – and the start of Phase 1-B – education workers and those 70 and older. For links to register for COVID-19 vaccination waiting lists and for vaccine updates in Garland County, visit www.cityhs.net/vaccine. For statewide vaccine updates, visit 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.
City and County leaders continue to discuss the fluidity of the distribution process in terms of unknown amounts of vaccine dose allotments coming weekly from the state. The Garland County Fairgrounds has been set up for drive through COVID vaccination clinics in a collaborative effort between City and County departments. The first clinic was held on Feb. 2. Recipients were scheduled from the top of a waiting list of residents ages 70 and above. Organizers had hoped for at least 1,000 doses to be available for this first mass clinic, but only 400 were available from the state. They are hopeful for between 1,000-2,000 to be provided for a clinic next week. For those who register for a vaccine waiting list online, they are reminded to be sure to answer their phone, even if it is an unknown number, as it may be someone calling to schedule their vaccination date/time. The callers will not leave a voicemail message, and the individual may miss that opportunity for a vaccine.
Shelby’s COVID statistic update for the week of Jan. 24-31 included 383 new cases reported, which is down from the previous week’s 495 and is the lowest weekly total since the first week in December. The average cases per day dropped from 70 the previous week to 54.7 last week. There were 2,944 tests recorded, which is down from 3,297 the previous week. The positivity rate dropped from 15% the previous week to its lowest point since mid-December at 13%. Shelby said the county’s active cases had the biggest one-week drop to date from 711 at the time of the previous meeting to 589 at the time of this Monday’s meeting.
For the fifth week in a row, the county recorded a double-digit death total with 11 COVID-related deaths last week.
Distribution in the county also saw widespread improvement, including Hot Springs Village falling from 41 active cases to 39 at the time of the meeting; Pearcy falling from 21 to 14; and Lonsdale from 12 to eight.
Similar to the lower cases in the community, school administrators from across the county reported lowering case and quarantine numbers among their students, teachers and staff. They also attribute the declining case numbers to the decrease in social gatherings in January. Even as case counts drop, the work of the school contact tracers continues as they give quarantine information to parents of close contacts, a task that grows increasingly challenging as the pandemic timeline draws on.
National Park Medical Center shared that their COVID numbers continue to hold about the same as what they have been. CHI St. Vincent shared that they are remaining steady, as well, with their numbers reduced from a few weeks ago, but not going down further.
The Garland County Health Unit provided COVID-19 tests for 127 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 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. There are currently three job openings open at the clinic – LPN, RN and clerk positions – listed at https://arcareers.arkansas.gov/. 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 United Way of the Ouachitas will begin their free Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program will being on Saturday, Feb. 6, and run through April 15. They continue to have 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.