With the active COVID-19 case count currently more than three times higher in Garland County than compared to the same time in 2020, school district representatives discussed their plans and challenges ahead for the upcoming school year at the meeting Monday, Aug. 2, of the Hot Springs/Garland County COVID-19 Task Force.
“Our struggle this year is to try to achieve the same results that we did last year with fewer tools and a more dangerous situation. I hope all of you understand that the mandates have become guidance from last year; we have new laws restricting our safety protocols. We don’t have the same waivers from the state, so we’re facing a huge struggle that we didn’t face last year,” said Lake Hamilton Superintendent Shawn Higginbotham. “Now, saying that, we have plans.”
Higginbotham said they are going to have layered prevention strategies, physical distancing, screening on site for staff, screening at home for kids, on-site testing and cleaning, disinfecting and ventilation. They will also continue with the same contact tracing, quarantine and isolation rules, which he said are the only things still required from the Arkansas Department of Health. They will also continue to promote masking and vaccinations.
Other school district representatives echoed Higginbotham in terms of similar preparations, adding vaccine incentive programs and vaccine clinics to the measures being taken.
All of the school districts are waiting to see if the state legislature amends Act 1002 to provide local decision making for school district mask mandates. A majority of the district representatives expressed confidence that their school boards would enact mask mandates, if the legislature allows. If the legislature declines or the school boards choose not to use a mandate, all representatives said they plan to continue to strongly encourage the use of face masks for students. Regulations from the state regarding exposure do not require quarantining of students who have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 at school if they have no symptoms and both the infected and the exposed individual are wearing face masks.
In his weekly COVID statistic report, Shelby shared that there were 570 new cases reported for the week from July 25 – Aug. 1, up from 482 the previous week. There was an average of 81.4 new cases per day, up from 60 cases per day the previous week. There was a total of 3,098 test results during the week, making the positivity rate 18.4%. The number of active cases was 770 at the time of the meeting, up from 556 the same time the previous week. There were seven additional deaths reported during the week. With increasing hospitalizations and caseloads, Shelby expects the death toll to continue to rise.
The Garland County Health Unit is administering the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine for ages 18 and older, with no appointment needed. The health unit also has available the state’s vaccination incentives – a $20 Arkansas Scholarship Lottery scratch-off ticket or an Arkansas Game and Fish license certificate – for anyone 18 and older who brings their COVID vaccination card to show their last shot was received after May 25.
The health unit’s COVID testing numbers continue to increase, with 77 individuals being tested last week. Those wanting a COVID test are advised to park their vehicle in a parking space reserved by a numbered cone, stay inside their vehicle and call 501-624-3394 to inform the representatives which number is indicated on the cone. They continue to offer their full range of health services inside their facility. Along with requiring a face mask to enter, the health unit also has a machine that takes people’s temperatures. Those with elevated temperatures are not allowed to enter. As outdoor temperatures rise, individuals may have to wait, masked, in the foyer area to cool in order to get an accurate body temperature reading. The health unit is located at 1425 Malvern Avenue and is open from 8 a.m. – 4 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday – Friday, and from 9:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. on Tuesday.
CHI continues to offer COVID vaccinations by scheduled appointments. Patients can visit www.chistvincent.com/getmyshot or call 501-622-6556 to begin the scheduling process. For additional vaccination locations and information, visit www.cityhs.net/vaccine.
The United Way of the Ouachitas has an online application for COVID-19 assistance for area families and individuals affected by the pandemic 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.